Looking back: Saquon Barkley's Penn State legacy

Try to imagine the one play that perfectly captures Saquon Barkley’s greatness as a Nittany Lion.                                   

There are plenty to choose from, so no worries if you need some time. To get you thinking, here are some options:

The spectacular touchdown against Illinois in 2015, his freshman season, when he leapt from inside the 5-yard line and crashed into the Beaver Stadium end zone, bulldozing over defenders. His circus-like catch-and-run against San Diego State for a score or the first of many hurdles against Buffalo. Both also in 2015.

Most notable are his insane performance at Iowa in 2017, the ridiculous 79-yard run at the Rose Bowl that still doesn’t seem humanly possible and the breakaway score in the Fiesta Bowl—a run he capped by jumping into the end zone and striking something of a Heisman pose.

Go back and watch the replay from the victory over Washington, it’s there.

This is a large part of Barkley’s greatness: He made the spectacular look routine. The amazingly awesome appear easily attainable. The unbelievable moments somewhat predictable.

This is why, at first glance, his performance at Michigan State last season doesn’t qualify as anything special, certainly not by the standards that Barkley set for himself.

Sure, he gained 63 rushing yards, totaled three catches and even completed a pass—a 20-yard gain to Mike Gesicki. But, the Nittany Lions still lost a three-point game on a last-second play after torrential storms and lightning resulted in a delay for more than three hours.

After the game, James Franklin said he hadn’t ever been part of anything like it. Weeks later, following the team’s trouncing of Maryland, Franklin referenced the atmosphere against the Spartans again, calling the day “a mess” and a “perfect storm.” Whether the latter description was an intended pun or not, the Penn State head football coach was right.

Still, Barkley rose above the quagmire that day in East Lansing.

Penn State’s chances at the College Football Playoff?

Essentially sunk.

Barkley’s Heisman Trophy chances?

Effectively gone.

Knowing all this, Barkley still acted selfless in the immediate moments after the loss.

Seeing a distraught teammate, he caught up to Amani Oruwariye, who was walking off the field looking visibly defeated. Barkley comforted him and shared a few encouraging words, putting his arm around the shoulders of the junior cornerback. Then, right before he and Oruwariye disappeared into the tunnel, Barkley reached up and high-fived some fans who had sat through the monsoon.

You won’t find this sequence on any of the numerous highlight reels of Barkley, though no other moment better captures why Barkley was, and remains, so beloved at Penn State.

Barkley never made himself the focus, even though he helped transform how the country viewed the Nittany Lions as the program returned to national prominence during his playing days.

At a time when folks across the national college landscape—and perhaps also in Happy Valley—wondered what would become of Penn State football, Barkley perfectly captured the old-school tradition, that blue-and-white grit, and all the humbleness that has become synonymous with the Nittany Lion gridiron squad since its beginning.  

Barkley didn't break the all-time rushing record at Penn State—he finished less than 100 yards short—but that won’t change how anyone perceives Barkley among the Nittany Lion greats.

Numbers don’t define Barkley’s time at Penn State. And they certainly don't define his legacy.

Former Penn State Running Back Coach Charles Huff helped recruit Barkley to Penn State. Speaking last summer, Huff said that Barkley’s motivation for wanting to break the all-time rushing record stemmed from an internal knowledge of knowing he set out a goal and achieved it. Not so that when he returns to Penn State, people clap and give Barkley an ovation when he walks into a room, but for something deeper.

“For him it’s when you work hard, you should be the best and you should strive to be the best,” Huff said. “To me, that’s what separates him from a lot of other players in the country. It’s more of an internal fire, rather than external.”

Huff is now coaching for Mississippi State, joining former Penn State Offensive Coordinator Joe Moorhead, who’s now leading the Bulldogs. Barkley is now set to shine on Sundays after the New York Giants drafted him No. 2 overall in this year’s NFL draft.

People move on. That’s true in life, and even more so in college football. Players leave early or transfer. Coaches choose different jobs as their careers evolve.

Fans remember most Nittany Lions for at least a few seasons after they’ve moved on, and some great players they remember for a decade or so.

Players like Barkley, however, the ones who leave a lasting legacy, come along once every generation, if even that often.

So no, Barkley didn’t win the Heisman Trophy, nor did he break the school’s all-time rushing mark. Instead, he embodied the true purpose of what it means to be a Nittany Lion like few other players ever have.

Sometimes that meant ripping across the Beaver Stadium turf during a superstar run. Other times, it meant consoling a teammate and acknowledging a fan after a heartbreaking road loss.

And in the end, what it also means is Barkley can still count on receiving an ovation every time he returns to Penn State.  

He’s earned it. No doubt.

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