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Individual Matchup to Watch: Saquon Barkley vs. Iowa’s Linebackers

Please oh please can Iowa slow this guy down?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Penn State
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

After reading into Kirk Ferentz’s praise of Trace McSorley (I cannot spell his name correctly to save my life), I thought for a tick about making him part of the matchup du jour. Then I reviewed the horror of Saquon Barkley’s stats from last year - 20 rushes for 164 yards, 1 44-yard reception, and 2 total TDs - as well as a poor man’s Saquon Barkley’s stats against Iowa from this year: David Montgomery had 113 yards on 20 rushes with another 53 yards on 5 receptions.

So... yeah, Iowa’s gonna need to improve against opponent running backs. What better time than against a “top 5 draft pick,” according to Kirk Ferentz?

Saquon Barkley; RB Penn State

It’s wrong to say it begins and ends with Barkley because of the firepower at the rest of Penn State’s skill positions, but the element he provides is so unique to Penn State within the already dizzying system they run. Consider, at 230 lbs, he is essentially the same weight as each of Iowa’s linebackers. Plus he can do this:

(some internal debate about whether this 405-lb power clean or the Brandon Scherff 3x 443-lb hang clean is more impressive, I have no clue)

And this:

As a refresher from above, he freaking torched Iowa last year in basically 3 quarters of work. How bad was it? Taking from Marc Morehouse, who has been providing the mean, median, and mode of Iowa running back rushes at the behest of an astrologist, here’s how last year played out:

9, 2, 8, 5, 2, 1, 4, 57, 8, 4, 8, 8, 14, 6, -2, 8, 6, 3, 13, 3

Mean: 8.35
Median: 6
Mode: 8

But enough about last year, how has Barkley done this year?

He’s largely picked up where he left off last season as he has accumulated over 100 yards from scrimmage in each of Penn State’s three games, though he’s been pulled during two second halves. His role has increased as a pass catcher, with this year’s 11 receptions well ahead of the pace set by last year’s 28. He’s also been added to their kick return unit so Miguel Recinos will need to show up when given the opportunity. In summary, he’s averaged 8.1 yards per rush and 21.9 yards per catch and accumulated five touchdowns.

The Penn State offense operates almost exclusively out of shotgun. Joe Moorhead isn’t afraid to run him between the guards but he is easily most dangerous when he is outside the tackles. I’ll leave you with this as a reminder of what could be in store:

Bo Bower, Ben Niemann, and Josey Jewell; LBs Iowa

After a strong first week against Wyoming where the Iowa trio combined for 38 tackles and 3.5 for loss with Jewell tacking on two sacks and a pass deflection, they’ve dropped off. They finished the TOE State game with 17 combined and had 9 against North Texas. Put simply, it is not what I’ve come to expect from an Iowa linebacking corps, let alone one so veteran.

Each one of Iowa’s linebackers is going to be put in a position where they either have to cover Barkley or tackle him. Yet being in a position to tackle him doesn’t always mean the linebacker has to tackle him. Screenshots are often unfair judges of quality but I think those below highlight my concern:

From about the 4:00 of the above video, Jewell went from containing the left side of the defensive line to focusing on Barkley as he attacked the middle. 26 was able to bounce outside after drawing 43 in from his assignment. Bower was well-positioned, in his assignment, to make the tackle yet couldn’t because an avenue was available to get the first down.

But if you continue the clip, Jewell is able to recover and string him out, with help from Miles Taylor and Ben Niemann, to force a tackle short of the line to gain:

These are the plays The Outlaw can make when he’s healthy. Though he didn’t make the tackle, he was able to reduce the damage after being out of position and force a fourth down (which Penn State sadly converted). It’s imperative he is close to 100% because he really hasn’t looked right since the game in Ames.

I am gaining confidence in Iowa’s ability to contain (though not stop) the run. Since it is a Kirk Ferentz-coached team, the bones are certainly there for Iowa to match Penn State’s execution, especially in the run game. As the captain on defense, it falls upon Jewell to ensure everyone is on the same page, play to play.

Ferentz said, “what we can't do is just give him stuff that's uncontested.” Hopefully three senior linebackers will rise to the occasion, be where they need to be, and limit big plays. If Iowa can do that, they might just have a shot at this.