Washington has been historically good at stopping the run. Penn State's Saquon Barkley is possibly the best college running back of this generation. Have the Huskies finally met their match?
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Washington Huskies finished the regular season with the No. 1 rushing defense in college football. They have allowed 2.68 yards per rushing attempt, the fewest by any Pac-12 defense since Pete Carroll was at USC in 2007.
The Huskies, in other words, have been historically good at stopping the run. And that’s part of the reason — the main reason, really — their showdown with No. 9 Penn State is such an enticing one in Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl (1 p.m. PT, ESPN).
Saquon Barkley, Penn State’s junior star, is as good a running back as there is in college football. Maybe as good as any running back in college football this decade, and a potential No. 1 pick in the NFL draft next spring.
The Huskies this week have been effusive in their admiration of Barkley.
“He’s a rare talent, for sure,” UW coach Chris Petersen said.
“You don’t watch ESPN without hearing Saquon Barkley’s name,” UW linebacker Tevis Bartlett said.
“Saquon, he’ll show like inside run, it will be an inside run, and he’ll just make something happen, boom, bounce outside, 30 yards, touchdown,” UW linebacker Keishawn Bierria said.
Barkley, 5-feet-11 and 233 pounds, has been effusive in his praise for UW’s defense too.
“They’re amazing,” he said. “If you look at the numbers, they’re like ranked in the top five in everything in college football. … That defensive line is big, it’s huge. And the thing is they’re huge and they’re athletic. They can move well, move pretty well. They’re not just big guys, like, they just take up space. They take up space, but they’re powerful, they’re fast, they’re explosive.
“It’s going to be a challenge for our team. But I do think they haven’t seen a team like us either. I do think we’re going to present some challenges for them. And I do think we have a great game plan to attack them.”
Barkley, the Big Ten offensive player of the year, has done his homework. During a college football awards show earlier this month, he asked Stanford’s star running back, Bryce Love, about how best to attack the Huskies. Love rushed for 166 yards and three touchdown in Stanford’s 30-22 victory over UW on Nov. 10.
“He did give me some tips and some things to help me come into this game that I’ll definitely pass along to the other running backs,” Barkley said.
This isn’t the first time this season that Penn State has faced the No. 1 rushing defense. In a 42-13 victory over Michigan, Barkley rushed for 108 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. He also caught a long TD pass.
Two weeks later, in a 27-24 loss at Michigan State, Barkley was held to 63 yards on 14 carries.
Barkley has been held to fewer than 100 yards on the ground eight times this season, as the Nittany Lions have struggled at times to run between the tackles. It’s difficult to imagine that trend changing dramatically against a UW defensive line featuring Vita Vea and Greg Gaines
Vea, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year, is expected to declare for the NFL draft some time in the next week or so. Penn State coach James Franklin introduced himself to Vea earlier this week and joked to the UW star.
“I told him it probably makes sense for him to declare for NFL now (before the Fiesta),” Franklin joked.
In what otherwise looks, on paper, like an even matchup across the board, the Huskies’ defensive line might have the advantage against a big, but plodding, Penn State offensive line.
Then again, Penn State’s quarterback, Trace McSorley, presents a challenge with his ability to run (11 TD) and throw (26 TD/8 INT).
With all the talk about Barkley, containing McSorley will be just as paramount for the Huskies.
“Any really explosive offense in this day and age, it’s always about the quarterback,” Petersen said. “I think Barkley is a unique, rare talent at that size and that speed. There’s no question. That’s why he’s going to be drafted where he’s going to be drafted. That’s obvious. But the guy that makes this go is the quarterback, for sure. He’s a good football player.
“I mean, he’s the kind you’re like, yeah, you’d like him on your team.”