We all thought we had seen this game before. A Big Ten program playing better than they had in generations, heading into Iowa City as a favorite in a night game, sees their entire team slip into neutral under the lights at Kinnick Stadium. Everything that can go wrong for the visitors does go wrong, while a scrappy Iowa team hangs around and sneaks away with a last-second victory. Then number-two Michigan lost to Iowa 14-13 less than 12 months ago, and, until the very last second spawned a 21-19 victory, it looked like Penn State was about to suffer the same fate.
But last year’s Wolverines didn’t have Penn State junior Saquon Barkley in the backfield. In fact, Barkley proved last night that no team in the NCAA has a back that can compare to his abilities, as he was impervious to all the hexes that afflicted his teammates. While he didn’t get the glory of scoring the buzzer-beater touchdown, the Nittany Lions absolutely could not have won without all of Barkley’s countless key plays (including this mind-bending hurdle on a fourth-quarter third down).
Barkley was the only constant good thing for Penn State, as they more than doubled Iowa’s offensive output yet barely squeaked out a win. Two missed field goals, a costly interception at the end of the first half, and a couple of big Iowa plays kept the Hawkeyes agonizingly close all night. As Penn State failed again and again to deliver a knockout punch, the game felt more and more like another Iowa heist. The lowlight reel of mistakes would have haunted Penn State for who knows how long had Saquon not swung the balance.
Barkley had 305 total yards rushing and receiving on 40 touches. He had ten alone on that hurdle drive, which looked like it was going to put the game away until Penn State missed a chip-shot field goal, and while he was less active on the game-winning drive, he picked up eight important yards on a third-and-ten, then caught a 14-yard pass to put the Nittany Lions ten yards away from the end zone. (Plus, he picked up the blitz on the game’s final play.)
Barkley’s stellar work, of course, was nothing shocking. He was very, very good as a freshman and great as a sophomore, overshadowed by Dalvin Cook and few others last season. But now, he is the undisputed best running back in college football and very probably the most valuable player at any school. It’s becoming more and more rare to see a team’s offense so focused around one running back, but Barkley’s domination is thrilling. This cut, and the way he stays in bounds, is just ridiculous
Having survived Iowa City, this Penn State team looks like it could potentially be the best since the 2005 Orange Bowl team that went 11-1. Their two major challenges come next month, as the Nittany Lions play Michigan and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks. Thanks to this Iowa win, however, Penn State could potentially split those games and still keep their playoff hopes alive. For that, they have nobody to thank but Saquon Barkley.