COLUMBUS — It almost felt like the Saquon Barkley for Heisman Trophy committee had opened a branch office in Ohio State’s Woody Hayes practice facility this week.
On Monday, OSU football coach Urban Meyer described the Penn State running back this way: “No question, he’s the best all-purpose guy we’ve probably faced in, maybe my career. He’s obviously a great running back.
“You have different ways of bottling up great running backs but it’s hard, especially with this guy. It’s really hard. He’s as good an all-purpose running back as we’ve seen. And that’s 30 years.”
Tuesday, defensive coordinator Greg Schiano described Barkley as “a once in 10 years guy.”
“He has strength, speed, vision and an incredible ability to change direction. And he’s not a little guy. You’re not going to arm tackle this guy,” Schiano said.
Linebacker Jerome Baker called Barkley “a monster” and said, “He can do it all — pass block, run routes, jump over you, run through you. I just like watching him, I’m excited to play against him.”
Barkley leads Penn State in rushing (757 yards, 8 TDs), is the team’s leading receiver with 32 catches and has returned a kickoff for a touchdown. He rushed for 99 yards on 12 carries in Penn State’s 24-21 win over Ohio State last year and went for 194 yards on 26 carries as a freshman in a 38-10 win by the Buckeyes two years ago.
Penn State is 13-1 since overcoming a 14-point Ohio State lead in the fourth quarter in last year’s game. Its only loss in that stretch was 52-49 to USC in the Rose Bowl and it has scored 43 points a game since the last time it played OSU.
If Barkley were the only threat, devising a defensive game plan might be a little easier. But Penn State has exceptional athletes at three offensive positions — running back, quarterback and tight end.
Quarterback Trace McSorley has thrown for 1,879 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also has seven rushing touchdowns. Tight end Mike Gesicki is tied with wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton for the team lead in receiving TDs with four.
“The biggest challenge is they have so many weapons,” Baker said. “Some teams will have a great running back but not a good tight end. Or they’ll have a good running back and good tight end but not a good quarterback.
“This team has it all — good receivers, good tight end and good running back. Every play you have to do your job and if everybody does their job it’s going to work out well,” he said.
History says Ohio State can contain Barkley, McSorley and Gesicki. In the two most recent games between OSU and Penn State, the Buckeyes’ defense has gotten the better of the Nittany Lions’ offense.
Ohio State outgained Penn State 413 yards total offense to 276 yards last season. Two years ago, OSU held Penn State to 230 yards.
Penn State is only 3 of 25 on third-down conversions in those two games. But its ability to hit explosive plays makes it a threat even when the offense appears to be bottled up.
“Their offense makes you defend from sideline to sideline. It also makes you defend vertically 60 yards deep,” Schiano said. “McSorley will throw the (deep) shot and he will also make you defend sideline to sideline with the pass and in the run game. It’s a challenge on every front.
“I believe in our players. I think we have really fine players and they’re trying their guts out to get ready for this game,” he said.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.