Saturday night offered an opportunity to study Penn State's Saquon Barkley and USC's Sam Darnold in highly anticipated prime-time games, and I took advantage of the chance.
These two superstars will always be linked by their epic performances in last season's Rose Bowl. They were the best players on the field in that game, and I think they're the top two players in college football right now. I know there are a lot of NFL evaluators that feel the same way.
Barkley and PSU have managed to carry the momentum from that Rose Bowl, even though they lost the game, into this season, but Darnold and USC have struggled to maintain that magic. It was evident on Saturday night, as PSU steamrolled Michigan while USC was blown out by Notre Dame.
I haven't found one person to disagree with the assessment that Barkley is the best RB in CFB, but there are some Darnold detractors. There will continue to be a debate about the QB, and he didn't help to quell concerns with his play on Saturday night. I don't think Darnold was the reason USC lost, but he didn't play up to the standard he set last season.
Here are five takeaways from the Saturday performances of the two players.
1. If there was any doubt about whether Barkley was the best player in the Michigan-Penn State game, he put it to rest after his first carry of the night (a 69-yard TD run). His suddenness jumps off the screen. You could see him pull away from everyone on the field on that run. He made one heck of an opening statement on Saturday, and he didn't stop there, finishing the night with 15 carries for 108 yards and two TDs, as well as three catches for 53 yards and a TD.
2. Barkley had a couple issues catching the ball Saturday, which was surprising. He had one drop and he juggled the ball on his touchdown catch. However, when you study the tape of the game, you'll see he's an outstanding route runner. He sets up defenders and explodes out of his breaks. He's going to be a big-time three-down weapon at the next level.
We've spent some time comparing his game to Ezekiel Elliott's, and while he's not quite as impactful as Elliott as a pass protector, he knows his assignment and he's very willing.
3. I love the energy Barkley brought to his team, and really the entire stadium, on Saturday night. You can tell he has an infectious attitude, which is something scouts love to see from the best players.
It adds a visual component to everything you hear about him being the consummate teammate, which my colleague Kimberly Jones brilliantly documented in a feature story last week. Everybody has nothing but high praise for him, and it's easy to see why.
4. Despite the result, I thought Darnold was effective when he was protected in the pocket Saturday night. The USC offensive line is not very good (it was a major mismatch up front in Notre Dame's favor), but when he had a clean pocket, he was in rhythm and delivered the ball accurately, especially on underneath and intermediate throws (he finished the night 20 of 28 for 229 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT and 1 fumble).
He probably won't get credit for it because it was such a lopsided loss (49-14), but he made some really nice throws. He lives in third-and-long situations, which is a tough spot to be in when you have an inferior group up front. USC acknowledged after the game that Darnold has been dealing with an ankle injury for the past few weeks, and Darnold said he aggravated it on Saturday night. You could see him hobbling during the game. He looked like he's pretty beat up physically, and he's probably pretty emotionally exhausted as well.
When you consider all that, I think he played pretty well.
5. I don't think I fully appreciated how much Darnold was going to miss Adoree' Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Jackson was only sprinkled in on offense for USC last season, but those two players, who are now NFL rookies, were able to make a lot of explosive plays, which made for easy drives. USC doesn't have that element this year. They are picking up 10 yards at a time, and it's hard to sustain drives that way. They don't have the same speed they've had in the past, and that puts even more pressure on Darnold.
Bonus: We touched on Notre Dame RB Josh Adams and the big year he's having in this week's MTS Notebook, and he continued to build on that with a huge game against USC (19 carries for 191 yards, 3 TDs). He's starting to gain some buzz in scouting circles. I don't put him in same class as Barkley and LSU's Derrius Guice, but he's firmly entrenched in the second tier of RBs.