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Saquon Barkley and Bryce Love: See how far they’ve run – Washington Post

Here it’s 2017 in college football — post-spread offense, post-Y2K, post-four-hour-games, post-Deshaun Watson, postmodern — and we’re standing around cooing at running backs. The utmost attention goes to two comic-book heroes born in 1997, a Hercules running back in the East (Saquon Barkley, Penn State), a sturdy blur in the West (Bryce Love, Stanford).

“I think it’s awesome!” said Stanford Coach David Shaw, an authority on intellectually brutal football, with its goofy I-formations and whatnot. “I think it’s awesome because you know, there’s an old quote, and I heard somebody say it on the radio the other day, and used to hear it all the time: ‘You throw the ball to score points, but you run the ball to win.’ And to win football games, you have to run the ball.”

He then went on about the cruciality of running the football in any fourth quarter, but said: “But then you have to have special ability. And that, to me, is what’s happened, too, where it’s not just average running backs we’re talking about. We’re talking special backs. These guys do some special things.”

Love is 5 feet 10, 196 pounds and possessive of an unusual gear, while Barkley is 5-11, 230 pounds and possessive of an unusual gear. From coast to coast, they have reiterated a reality.

Man, how a great running back can energize an American town.

In Love’s case, that’s Wake Forest, N.C. (pop. 40,000), just north of Raleigh. In Barkley’s case, that’s Whitehall Township, Pa. (pop. 27,000), just north of Allentown. Riveted citizens in each place knew the Friday nights of these two forces running loose, even if they didn’t imagine just how far they might run.

In Whitehall’s case, that means that on this Saturday afternoon at 3:30 in the East, as No. 2 Penn State opposes No. 6 Ohio State, you can feel everyone you know in town settling in front of the TV, which is the description given by Bill Fonzone, who heads the Whitehall High School Zephyr Pride Foundation. After all, so many of them remember the nights of Barkley’s “kick returns, punt returns, defensive plays, one-handed grabs, long touchdown runs,” said athletic director Bob Hartman, whose children Barkley once babysat. “It was, ‘What will he do this week?’ There was a lot of that.”

In Wake Forest’s case, it can mean sitting up till the wee hours to see untold delights from the West Coast and Love, even if kickoff comes at 11 p.m. in the East, as it did on Oct. 14 for Oregon-Stanford. “I was up,” said Reggie Lucas, Love’s high school coach. After all, he said of Love, “Every time he touched the ball” in high school, “everybody tuned in because we knew it could be a big play at any moment.”

So it has gone for this year at Stanford. Through seven games, there was Love’s 198.1 per-game rushing average, No. 1 in the country, 35 whopping yards ahead of second-place Zach Abey of Navy. Within and around that number, Stanford ranked No. 1 in plays of more than 30 yards (20), plays of more than 40 yards (13) and plays of more than 50 yards (10). The funnest area to hunt in all the stat sheets of 2017 might be the numerals beside Love’s name and beneath the word “LONG,” indicating the longest run of a certain game. Here goes: 62 vs. Rice, 75 vs. Southern California, 53 vs. San Diego State, 69 vs. UCLA, 61 vs. Arizona State, 68 vs. Utah and 67 vs. Oregon.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

And so when Love stood sidelined against Oregon State on Thursday night with a right ankle injury, they played an eyesore game in a half-full stadium, and eyeballs wandered from the 22 players on the field to one who stood in a gray sweatshirt, looking anonymous between his towering chums. When Love does not play, the chance of thrills withers. An offense that just gained 553, 504, 384 and 504 yards clogged up for 222, and No. 20 Stanford (6-2) barely overcame itself and 1-7 Oregon State, 15-14.

“What separates Bryce for me is the yards after contact,” Shaw said after Love had hobbled to the team bus. “Whereas you’ve got bigger backs around the nation that are physical guys that bounce off and make big plays, nobody’s doing what Bryce has done this year, which is lead the nation in yards after contact. A lot of his big runs, some of them are well-blocked and everybody’s blocked, and a lot of them are, he’s running through an arm tackle. He’s making a guy miss. He’s coming up on a safety and making a guy miss and accelerating and going full-speed like he did against Arizona State, like he did against Utah.

“Those are plays that nobody else in America is making. Not just, ‘Oooh, he got hit and he dragged the guy for five yards.’ He’s done that, too, but a lot of his big runs have come when he should be, quote-unquote, tackled, and not only does he make more yards, he actually scores touchdowns. And those are the plays that change games. Those are the plays that make him, to me, special, and make him unique in college football right now.”

For the weekend of Sept. 30, a Wake Forest High contingent of eight — Lucas, athletic director Mike Joyner, five assistant coaches, principal Patti Hamler — made the trip to visit their former 4.5-GPA student. They turned up at the walk-through practice Friday, at the practice field beside the Stanford swimming complex where Katie Ledecky and teammates blast through the water, and their whole trip caught Love by surprise.

“You guys got me,” he told them. “You got me.”

Come that Saturday, they wore their specially made Love T-shirts, and their presence clearly heaped unmanageable pressure upon him, as he rushed 25 times for 301 yards against Arizona State. The Wake Forest fans love Love’s transcontinental mentions of Wake Forest, or the “Just A Kid From Wake Forest” T-shirt he wore in media interviews. “He was loud on the football field,” Lucas said, “and if he was away from the field, you maybe couldn’t find Bryce.”

People speak similarly of Barkley.

“Just another kid in the halls,” and “a humble kid who did his own thing,” Hartman said. In the Morning Call of Allentown, Hartman’s daughter called Barkley a “really chill” babysitter.

Of course, nowadays, Penn State Coach James Franklin, who grew up also in Eastern Pennsylvania, and who played quarterback at East Stroudsburg University while Fonzone, the head of Whitehall’s fan group, played outside linebacker, has dragged out the word “Frankenstein” for Barkley. To the Big Ten Network, Franklin said: “If you were building a Frankenstein running back, you could find, and I’ve been around backs that are really quick, or really fast, or really strong, or really explosive, but they have deficiencies. I know it sounds crazy but he really doesn’t.”

Barkley’s rushing yards, 108.1 per game, rank him 20th in the land, but he tacks on the dimension of being a fearsome receiver, with 32 catches for 448 yards, and a kickoff returner, with nine for 273 yards and a touchdown. He leads the nation at 211.1 all-purpose yards per game, roughly 10 ahead of Love, who ranks second. Barkley’s Frankenstein stuff helped define the night of Oct. 21 and the 42-13 rout of Michigan: a 69-yard touchdown run on a direct snap, a gasp-worthy 15-yard touchdown run on a pitch and sweep and a compelling 42-yard touchdown bobble-and-catch up the sideline.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

Barkley ranked a perfectly high No. 11 among running backs on Rivals’ recruiting list in 2015, but even after one watches the Friday night highlights of such a player, one never knows. “I mean, he was a great player,” Hartman said, “but we didn’t think he’d be where he is today. Who expects that? No one, really . . . We didn’t think he’d be a top-five draft pick, a Heisman Trophy contender.”

Edward Hozza Jr., the mayor of Whitehall Township, reminds that everyone around town calls Barkley “Sa Sa,” pronounced with long “a” sound. As Fonzone described, the feelings for Penn State, long established in an area three hours by car from the school, have only intensified with Barkley attached.

“We pride ourselves on working-class, tough, blue-collar-type athletes,” Hartman said. “Something we hang our hat on, something we hear from other communities about our kids.” Even as nearby MacArthur Road has become a typical American chain-store boulevard, “highly commercialized, strip-mall-type,” Hartman said, “We never want to lose the identity of being those hard-nosed, tough kids that work hard, that get what they earn, that don’t run away from adversity.”

They like it especially when they interview prospective coaches.

“Why Whitehall?” they ask some.

“We hear that answer: ‘Kids that fight hard, that bring it every game,’” Hartman said. “That’s a pretty cool answer, an answer that we love.”

It’s an answer that can get lost in the razzmatazz as a college season wears on, but that breathes on in a Penn State back who looks like a fright coming at a defender, and in Mr. Yards-After-The-Carry Love at Stanford. They’re American running backs circa 2017, they’re evolutionary, and they matter whether they play or they don’t.

Saquon Barkley and Bryce Love: See how far they’ve run – Washington Post

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