There are moments in life when you feel that an outcome is destined. That it is pre-determined. That day you have a big meeting, but the car battery is dead when you try and start your morning. You know then that the meeting might not go your way. When you have an early morning flight and you are convinced that you’ll miss it. You set every alarm in the house to make sure you are covered, but the power goes out due to a storm overnight and you still manage to oversleep.
Saturday, when the Indiana Hoosiers visited the Penn State Nittany Lions, the game took on the same air of inevitability. From the “Generations of Greatness” theme that harkened back to the decades of Penn State gridiron, to the pre-game festivities that got the student section into full throat well before kickoff, to that opening kickoff…
Something else that felt inevitable on that afternoon was the road ahead of Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. A blend of power, finesse and speed, Barkley stands out as perhaps the best running back talent in this draft, and is in the mix as maybe even the best running back in recent history, apologies of course to Ezekiel Elliott. There’s a different air in a stadium or arena when a player the caliber of Barkley touches the ball. It’s akin to watching a hockey game with Alex Ovechkin, or a basketball game with LeBron James or Steph Curry. The crowd expects magic every time they get their hands on the football, the basketball, or the puck. There is almost an audible sound that is made, when tens of thousands of people collectively hold their breath. Beaver Stadium is filled with that noise each and every time Barkley gets his hands on the football. And as Barkley settled under the football in the front right corner of the field, on his own two-yard line, you heard that noise.
98 yards later, Barkley and the Lions had a seven-point lead.
Things never improved for the visitors. On their first offensive possession, Morgan Ellison put the ball on the turf and it was recovered by Penn State linebacker Jason Cabina. The Nittany Lions quickly capitalized, on a short one-yard quarterback draw from Trace McSorley for the score. Both teams traded punts after that, but when it was Penn State’s turn to give the ball back, they didn’t give it back for long. On their first punt of the day reserve wide receiver Irwin Charles forced a fumble and backup safety Nick Scott returned the muff for a touchdown, and a little past midway through the first quarter, the home team was up 21.
That feeling returned when the teams looked to trade punts again, only this time instead of an Indiana fumble, they rough Penn State punter Blake Gillikin, giving the home team a fresh set of downs. The next play? Barkley one hands a screen pass, in a manner that would impress even Odell Beckham Jr., and then breaks off a long run into Indiana territory. There’s really no other way to describe him at this point than by saying he’s a human cheat code. A few plays later, McSorley hangs in there against the blitz on third down and drops in a perfect throw on a fade route to DaeSean Hamilton. 28-0.
The game fell into a bit of a lull in the second quarter, and the Hoosiers finally got on the board after quarterback Richard Lagow hit tight end Ian Thomas on a third-down play and the TE was able to rumble down to the Penn State goal line. On the next play, fullback Ricky Brookins punched it in from the one, and the visitors were finally on the board. Then, the Hoosiers cut the lead to 14 just before halftime, on a throw from backup quarterback Peyton Ramsey to Simmie Cobbs, Jr.
As the Penn State Blue Band took the field and performed their halftime routine, a thematic piece about “love Stories” featuring music from “Dirty Dancing” and “Titanic,” as well as an impressive performance from Feature Twirler Rachel Reiss, there were some unsettled feelings in the stands. Penn State had let Indana back into this game, and despite the 14-point lead, the offense had yet to get on track. Indiana would be receiving the second-half kickoff, with a chance to cut this to a one-score game.
But then Ramsey threw an interception on the third play of the second half.
Indiana held Penn State to a field goal try, and that sailed wide, and the majority of the 107,542 in attendance felt the nerves again. But on Indiana’s ensuing drive, they faced a 3rd and 7 on their own 35. A Ramsey pass fell incomplete, and the Penn State offense would have another chance. On the ensuing drive, Barkley took a shot when he was watching the flow of play, and came off for a snap, but he returned to help an offense that was suddenly rolling with the aerial attack. McSorley completed three-straight passes, to DeAndre Thompkins, to Hamilton and to Juwan Johnson, and the offense was just outside the red zone. But that drive stalled, and on third down a pressured McSorley rolled to his right with what looked to be a lot of green grass in front of him. Then Tegray Scales chased him down, holding Penn State to another field goal try. This time, the kick from Tyler Davis was true, and the lead was extended to 17.
Time for “Sweet Caroline” and the Neil Diamond impersonator.
Indiana took over, and soon enough, the ball was on the ground again. Marcus Allen forced a fumble, and it was recovered by Parker Cothren. Penn State ball at midfield. The nerves were settled yet again, and the sense of inevitability was back. That remained as McSorley dropped back and lofted a pass to Hamilton in the front left corner of the endzone. Hamilton came down with the toss as flags were thrown, and after a referee’s conference, any notion of offensive pass interference was waived off, and with the extra point the Penn State lead was extended to 24. Indiana fought valiantly to close the gap, but as they relied on Ramsey down the stretch, who is more of a runner than a passer, it was tough to get the yards they needed in the dwindling amount of time they had left. Penn State closed out the contest by adding a player to the record books, as Hamilton caught a third touchdown pass…from Barkley, of course, to become the school’s career receptions leader. Of course, we heard that noise again, as the running back swept to the right before attempting the jump pass over two defenders, and into the waiting arms of his receiver.
Perhaps, in the end, the game felt inevitable because it mirrored last year’s meeting between these teams. In that contest, the Indian defense held Barkley to 58 yards on 33 carries, and although the RB did chip in two scoring plays, the offensive production on the day came mostly from the passing attack. On this afternoon, the Indiana defense again held Barkley largely in check, with his biggest play coming on special teams, and the the offense gained only 39 yards on the ground. But it was enough as McSorley and company took care of business through the air, and Cabinda led the charge on the defensive side of the football. Going forward, Barkley will see more than enough opportunities to deliver on some big plays – and take the air out of more stadiums as the season rolls on.