Dan Murphy, ESPN Staff Writer 414d

Barkley, Penn State leave Michigan in the dust to start race toward playoff

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saquon Barkley has some very talented friends.

Barkley used a whitewashed stage of 110,823 -- the most to ever cram inside Beaver Stadium -- and a national, prime-time audience Saturday to quickly remind us why he’s a Heisman Trophy front-runner. Then he beckoned his buddies in blue to join him in reminding us that Penn State has the firepower and balance to take a run at a couple other trophies this winter.

Trace McSorley ran for three touchdowns, and the second-ranked Nittany Lions (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) ran away from No. 19 Michigan (5-2, 2-2) in a 42-13 display of offensive heft. The victory kicks off with a bang the three-game stretch that should provide James Franklin’s team with an opportunity to prove it deserves to be the one nipping at Alabama’s heels in the race for the College Football Playoff’s top spot.

The white-out atmosphere at Beaver Stadium recoiled like a cartoon cannon at kickoff and launched Barkley through the middle of the Michigan defense for a 69-yard score on the second play of the game. Most of Penn State’s sideline took off with him when Barkley poked his head into grassy daylight, but they weren’t going to catch him. Neither was Michigan. The Heisman candidate nearly outran himself, taking a stride to steady his balance before crossing the goal line.

Penn State nearly ran away with the whole thing just as quickly. Barkley scored again four minutes later, this time on a pitch from 15 yards away. Michigan countered with its second three-and-out, and the Nittany Lions were driving again before cornerback David Long intercepted a misfire from McSorley and gave the Wolverines their shot to get their balance.

Central Pennsylvania native John O'Korn had his finest half in a Wolverines uniform. The fifth-year senior helped the Wolverines temporarily climb back into the game by completing seven of nine passes and leading two efficient, second-quarter scoring drives.

But in less than a minute, McSorley and the rest of the Nittany Lions' offense flashed the might of their finely tuned, diverse attack. McSorley dropped passes over the heads of Michigan defenders to DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki before darting into the end zone himself.

Penn State led by a score at the half, and Michigan didn’t have the breath to play catch-up again.

By then, the offense had tossed aside some of the stingy superlatives that Michigan’s defense could boast about. The Wolverines hadn't allowed 300 total yards in a game this season. Penn State had 303 at the break. Opponents had been averaging 85.8 rushing yards per game. Barkley had 109 by himself before heading to the locker room.

The Nittany Lions cleared 500 yards of total offense by the end of game, finishing with 506. Only one other team -- the 2015 Ohio State Buckeyes -- had put up 40-plus points on Michigan's formidable defense since head coach Jim Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor. Barkley didn't need to carry the ball much in the second half, but he added a juggling, 42-yard touchdown reception in case anyone needed another reminder of his versatility.

Trips to Columbus, Ohio, and East Lansing, Michigan, are up next for the Nittany Lions. The Big Ten’s top team will have to weather on the road an Ohio State offense that is scoring at a historic clip and the surprise Spartans, as well as the accumulated wear-and-tear that comes with playing three ranked league opponents in three consecutive weeks.

Can they pack the same electric energy that filled Happy Valley this weekend? The record crowd at Beaver Stadium certainly gave this team a jolt. But Barkley and his teammates made clear Saturday night that they are an intimidating crowd all on their own.

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