Rodney Smith can’t quite remember the specifics of the Gophers’ last meeting with Penn State, a 29-26 overtime loss at Beaver Stadium in 2016.
Except for one.
He distinctly recalls how the Gophers had neutralized star Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, holding him to 38 yards — until Barkley, now an NFL standout, ripped off a 25-yard run to win the game.
“He made the play when he needed to make it,” Smith said. “One-on-one matchup in open field, and he broke the tackle, and he scored.”
The Gophers running back, now in his sixth and final year, might have to replicate Barkley’s performance Saturday in a rematch with Penn State. The Nittany Lions rank second nationally in run defense, at 68.4 yards per game.
Smith is on a streak of five games with at least 100 rushing yards, taking 3,848 career yards into this game. But the Gophers’ offensive line, while big, is still young and encounters one of the best defensive lines in college football.
“They can all stop the run. They’re all pass-rushers. It’s very rare to have both combinations,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
Smith and fellow running back Shannon Brooks actually both ran for more than 100 yards in that 2016 game. And Smith knows this is an even bigger game against a more dominant team. But he’s also focused on the specifics: be physical, break tackles, execute.
And if he has to hit the Saquon, he will.
“Our playmakers,” Smith said, “have to make plays when they present themselves.”