Miles Sanders and Saquon Barkley talk after every Penn State game. They don’t often get too deep, maybe a tip here and there from Barkley. But over the bye week, Sanders recalled an important September conversation with his predecessor — one with a hint of foreshadowing.
“He told me that he wants to see me try to catch the ball more,” Sanders told the CDT. “We have a lot more players we can throw to, so we don’t really use the back as much, like they used Saquon. But I want to be that all-around back.”
Two weeks later, Sanders saw his opportunity and seized it. The junior tailback tallied a career-high six catches for 54 yards against Indiana last Saturday. That might not seem like a lot; Barkley had 54 catches for 632 receiving yards a year ago. But the team-leading performance was significant for both Sanders’ personal development and the progression of Penn State’s offense.
For Sanders, this was a long time coming. Up until the Indiana game, he managed only nine catches for 58 yards. Sanders had a couple of real chances to make an impact in the passing game, including a 64-yard wheel route against Pitt that was called back due to an offensive pass interference by Juwan Johnson.
But outside of that, Sanders’ opportunities have been limited to say the least. He joked Wednesday that he finally “showed the world I can catch the ball” against the Hoosiers.
“That was one of our goals going into last week, having the running back be more involved in the passing game,” Sanders said. “Just to spread out the defense more and make them worried about a lot. That just helps us be more effective and get more people open. They’re not just worried about the receivers getting open; they have to worry about the running backs in the passing game and Trace running the ball. It just opens up the offense.”
Especially for a unit that has struggled to live up to recent standards. Under first-year offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, the Nittany Lions are averaging 42.6 points per game, but only 25.3 in their last three. Penn State ranks 58th in passing offense, a product of playcalling, drops, weather and, at times, inconsistent quarterback play.
Head coach James Franklin reiterated after Wednesday’s practice that McSorley is “carrying too much of the load” offensively, adding that the Nittany Lions “have to get more guys involved.”
“Last week, Miles probably played his best game, most complete game,” Franklin said. “When you’re able to work through your progressions in college football, if No. 1 isn’t open in college football, typically ‘2’ or ‘3’ are nude. So if you can work through your third or your fourth progression, hit the back on a checkdown, usually there are opportunities for really big plays there. It’s nice to see that kind of start to happen for us.”
That trend could continue this weekend, too.
This season, like last, Iowa’s defensive foundation is its front-four. Led by defensive ends Anthony Nelson and former five-star recruit A.J. Epenesa, the Hawkeyes’ pass-rush might force McSorley into quick decisions. That was the case at Kinnick in 2017, when Barkley recorded 12 catches — many of them checkdowns — for 94 yards. The generational tailback also caught a 44-yard wheel-route touchdown in Penn State’s 2016 meeting with Iowa, beating linebacker Bo Bower in man coverage.
So, will Sanders get his chance to do the same? Rahne, McSorley and the Nittany Lions would be smart to look his way. And if they do, he’ll be ready to show once again that he’s more than just a hard runner.
“That (Indiana performance) really elevated my game,” Sanders said. “Saquon is doing a good job of that now (with the Giants). Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Alvin Kamara, all those guys. I try to relate my game to them, because that’s the new type of back now.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get the W.”