Mike Poorman of StateCollege.com wrote an interesting article on the history of two-back (and three-back) rotations at Penn State a few weeks back. The focus of his feature was the Saquon Barkley-Miles Sanders duo. Barkley, although just a true freshman in 2015 and behind upperclassmen on the early depth charts, emerged as a quasi-game-changer for a lethargic Penn State offense. In fewer than 10 games, he ran for over 1,000 yards and had more runs over 20 yards than anyone in the Big Ten. His 194 yards against Ohio State (despite the Lions only scoring 10 points) were simply Herculean.
Using my definition of game-changer, there may not have been a win where Barkley was the sole difference between victory and defeat, but if you trace his presence and his effect, it’s reasonable to wonder at what point we would have pulled away from Buffalo (12 carries for 115 yards, mostly in the 2nd half of a 27-14 win), and his absence in the 2nd half versus San Diego State was abundantly evident. His 25 carries for 120 yards and 2 TDs against Northwestern would have qualified for this distinction had not the passing game (particularly Hackenberg’s red zone interception late) doomed Penn State.
It’s true. He IS a cheat code! pic.twitter.com/THijhd9Bo3
— Nittany Lions Wire (@NittanyLionWire) March 2, 2016
It is perfectly appropriate to ask if a healthy Saquon Barkley can’t be a game-changer for the Nittany Lions, the kind of kid who can win three games on the force of his sophomore talent alone.
What seems greedy is talking about the possibility of Penn State having two.
Granted, future freshman Miles Sanders hasn’t played a down of college ball. He’s still taking high school classes while I type. And yes, top running back prospects don’t always translate successfully to the next level. But, he is considered among the most elite of the elite (even No. 1 by some), and that’s like adding a first-round draft pick to your NFL roster. His potential to be a game-changer himself is there; his highlight tapes look eerily similar to current Florida State game-changer Dalvin Cook.
Long-time Penn State fans remember two-back rotations (as Poorman pointed out) where there was barely a drop-off and where both backs were elite. Do we dare imagine a scenario where Barkley spins and leaps for a 30-yard gain, and then catches his breath while Sanders takes a screen pass to the house on the very next juke-filled play?
But before our salivary glands go crazy over the possibilities, we have to consider the current context around these game-changers. Running backs need competent offensive lines (ask Leonard Fournette about LSU’s blocking versus Alabama last November), and Penn State offensive lines and competency have been antonyms the past two seasons. New offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s schemes could be the spark that brings together the youth on the offensive line, talent on the outside (Godwin, Hamilton, and others), and the studly backs.
Or, the overall youth and new quarterback in the new system could lead to another disappointing offensive showing in 2016.
The schedule isn’t overwhelming. While Penn State appears to be outmatched by Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State, a game-changer could provide a moment or two that tips the scales towards the Lions. Pittsburgh and Iowa have similar talent to Penn State’s, and in games like those, it’s often transcendent players that are the difference. Everyone else on Penn State’s schedule is less talented (or at least they appear so on paper).
Can Barkley and/or Sanders put the 2016 offense on their backs and soar? Or will they (like Michael Robinson in 2003 and 2004) be overly hampered by an insufficient supporting cast?
Whatever the answers may be to those huge questions, Penn State likes that it gets to figure things out with two potential game-changers in the backfield.