Saquon Barkley wasn’t much of a Penn State football fan when he was growing up in the Lehigh Valley.
Of course, the Nittany Lions were always on TV in his hometown of Coplay. A kid couldn’t avoid them. But Barkley was more of an NFL guy.
When he would watch college football, he cheered for Rutgers. When he would play NCAA football video games, he would always be the Scarlet Knights.
So, naturally, when Rutgers was the first Division I school to offer him a scholarship his sophomore year of high school, Barkley made a verbal commitment.
Much has changed since then for the star running back. On Saturday, Barkley rushed for 92 yards and helped Penn State shut out the Rutgers team he once idolized. For the Lions, Barkley has surpassed 1,000 yards this season, a mark he reached last year as a true freshman. And with a win this week, Penn State could advance to the Big Ten championship, thanks in part to Barkley’s performance this season.
How did Barkley, the die-hard Rutgers fan, end up here?
It started with the four-overtime win against Michigan his junior year of high school. He watched players like Christian Hackenberg and Allen Robinson help orchestrate that comeback.
“The fight that they had, they would never quit,” Barkley said. “That’s what you want. That’s the kind of program you want to play for.”
Barkley wanted to develop that same ability to battle adversity. After witnessing the 2013 Michigan game while on a recruiting visit to Happy Valley, he would watch Penn State games and wonder how he could make an impact.
“Oh, maybe I can do this, score this touchdown,” he recalled thinking as a high schooler.
Barkley scored eight touchdowns his freshman season at Penn State, but the team finished with a 7-6 record. This season, Barkley has already logged 16 scores, and the Nittany Lions are ranked in the top 10 of both the College Football Playoff and AP polls.
Barkley has never been happier with his choice to attend Penn State.
“We got something special going right now. We know that. We’re aware of that. I’m just happy that I’m able to be part of that,” Barkley said. “Coming to this school was the best decision of my life.”
On Saturday, the Lions can advance to the Big Ten championship, if they beat Michigan State and Ohio State beats Michigan.
Penn State-Michigan State kicks off at 3:30 p.m., after the noon Ohio State-Michigan matchup.
The team will try, of course, not to pay attention to the results of that earlier game. Coach James Franklin has preached that mentality all week.
However, Barkley conceded that silencing outside noise is much easier said than done.
“Am I going to take a look at the Ohio State game? No. But it’s 2016 … you’re going to be a little aware,” Barkley said. “I feel like as a team we can’t focus on that. We can only control what we can control, and that’s Michigan State right now.”