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How can the Buckeyes stop Saquon Barkley?

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Penn State sophomore running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs toward the end zone against Maryland on Oct. 8. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Penn State sophomore running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs toward the end zone against Maryland on Oct. 8. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes survived its biggest test of the year last week at then-No. 8 Wisconsin. On Saturday at 8 p.m. at Penn State, there will be a few similarities in the adversity OSU will face; none more challenging than Nittany Lions’ sophomore running back Saquon Barkley.

Heading into its game against Wisconsin, the Silver Bullets had averaged less than 100 yards allowed per game on the ground. Badgers’ senior running back Corey Clement ran for 164 yards on 25 carries, unraveling a few weaknesses on the OSU front seven. Much like Clement, Barkley used the game versus the Buckeyes as his freshman coming-out party. He rushed 26 times for 194 yards in 2015 in Columbus.

Barkley is coming into the meeting with the Scarlet and Gray after his best game of the season. He ran for 202 yards on 31 carries (6.5 yards average) and scored once versus Maryland. Barkley has gained 582 yards on the ground on 117 carries, 140 receiving yards from 11 receptions and has scored nine times (eight running, one receiving) through six games. Penn State and coach James Franklin are hoping to use an extra week of preparation to their advantage against the Buckeyes.

Meyer said that it’s not a matter of stopping Barkley, but limiting him.

“You got to tackle well and make sure your gap’s sound,” he said. “You won’t stop him, but minimize the impact the running back has on us.”

OSU’s defense had been the definition of sound before the game up in Madison, Wisconsin. After surrendering 313 yards of offense in the first half at Wisconsin, the defense made adjustments to cut down the jet sweep on the outside and contain the interior run game.

With Barkley in the backfield, OSU will have to worry about both the interior run game and power run plays outside the tackles. Meyer said Barkley is one of those guy who can gash a defense even when all assignments are met.

“You can have everything locked down and he creates plays,” Meyer said. “That’s what makes him great. He’s dynamic.”

Specifically what makes Barkley dynamic is his ability to avoid tacklers with jump cuts and a leaping ability that was present in former OSU running backs Carlos Hyde and Ezekiel Elliott. The Buckeyes style of rugby tackling emphasizes tackling a player at his legs, making the defense susceptible to a flying Barkley.

Redshirt sophomore Malik Hooker said that the possibility of a hurdle is just another thing the team prepared for this week.

“He’s probably one of the top running backs in the nation, if not the top running back in the nation,” Hooker said. “If we stop the run game, we have a high chance of winning this game.”

One thing that OSU has benefitted from is its redzone defense, which ranks first in the country allowing just 62.5 percent of scores when the opposing team crosses the 20-yard line. Franklin’s revamped offense favors an inside zone run with Barkley in the backfield, so the second line of defense for OSU will play a big role in stopping the run.

Last week, sophomore linebacker Jerome Baker had a team-high 13 tackles at weak-side linebacker last week. This week, Meyer said junior linebacker Dante Booker will play for the first time since injuring his knee against Bowling Green in Week One. Having a healthy rotation of linebackers against a future first-round pick in Barkley could benefit the Buckeyes in their pursuit of a 7-0 record.

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