Akrum Wadley vs. Saquon Barkley a primetime prizefight for Iowa-Penn State

Pair of Big Ten running backs have similarly dynamic styles, will be the players to stop for both sides

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IOWA CITY — Toward the end of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz’s media availability on Tuesday, the most-tenured coach in college football was asked if Iowa had anyone who could simulate Penn State running back Saquon Barkley in preparation for Saturday’s game.

Ferentz laughed — pretty hard.

“Are you kidding me?” Ferentz asked rhetorically. “He’d be at our end if he did. He wouldn’t be simulating — he would be our guy. Or else it would be time for me to be doing something else, that’s for sure. If you see one of those guys walking around that wants to come to Iowa, let me know, will you?

“That would be like somebody here imitating LeBron, right?”

Well, Coach, you’re not wrong.

It feels like there should be a prizefight poster or something for Saturday’s prime-time game on ABC at Kinnick Stadium for precisely that reason.

Not that Iowa and No. 4 Penn State represent two heavyweights in college football right now — the Nittany Lions qualify, but the Hawkeyes not just yet — rather because of the two best players on either side.

Barkley and Iowa’s Akrum Wadley won’t go head to head. They’re not the only matchup worth watching. But given the counterparts’ similarly dynamic styles and those playmaking abilities, it is the most exciting. The blows traded on the new Kinnick turf won’t be literally at one another, but they certainly will be metaphorical.

Ferentz’s jokes about Barkley being such a great talent are those kinds of jokes that are funny because they’re true. Barkley ran for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, adding 402 yards receiving and four touchdowns through the air as a sophomore. He went for 167 yards and a touchdown on the ground last year against Iowa — his fourth highest rushing total for the season, topped by 194 yards in the Rose Bowl, 202 yards against Maryland and his season-high of 207 against Purdue the week before he ran over the Hawkeyes.

So far this season, Barkley is averaging 8.1 yards per carry with 307 yards and three touchdowns, while already catching 11 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns. His 655 all-purpose yards (he has 107 yards on kick returns) rank second in the nation through three weeks.

 

Barkley vs Wadley is exciting because of what they’re both capable of, sure, but even Ferentz isn’t putting them on the same level.

“Yeah, I mean this with all due respect to Akrum, but we’re talking about Barkley being one of the guys that’s going to be I would imagine a top-5 pick,” Ferentz said. “You know, if you start comparing it that way — and football is all about team. Akrum made some plays on his own. He’s really good at that, obviously, but we’re going to need to help him. It can’t just all be about Akrum.”

It is a lot about Akrum, though, and it’s a pretty safe bet Barkley won’t be the only one to make a play Saturday that will elicit a “wow.”

Wadley’s done the “wow” thing a couple times already this year. His 46-yard touchdown catch against Iowa State will be replayed in Hawkeye highlight reels for decades. He made cuts during runs against both Wyoming and North Texas that put defenders on the ground. The plays he’s made in the last two seasons have been on the same kind of jaw-dropping level as Barkley. He went for 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing with 315 yards and three touchdowns receiving last year. Wadley sits 11th in the nation in all-purpose yards at 510, 49 yards rushing and 89 yards receiving behind Barkley’s marks.

Wadley doesn’t need someone to tell him Barkley is good, or that the pair of them will be the focus for opposing defenses — both Saturday and the rest of the season. He doesn’t need someone to tell him Barkley is a Heisman candidate. He doesn’t need to even watch Barkley to know it.

The senior laughed off a question Tuesday about whether or not he watched Barkley, and what he sees in his fellow running back. He doesn’t need a high-caliber running back to raise his level of play.

“What do you see in him? I don’t want to talk about Saquon,” Wadley said through a smile, jokingly dismissing the question before turning more serious. “It’s not about him. I don’t watch him. I watch NFL backs like LeVeon Bell, Jamaal Charles, Shady (LeSean) McCoy. He’s my age and we’re going against him so I’m not (watching him).

“Every game brings out the best. I don’t work so hard just for this game and then next week just blow it.”

To that end, Barkley doesn’t need the Heisman hype to get him ready to play, either.

The pair of them have chips on their shoulders that stretch far back beyond the lead-up to a night game that serves as their conference openers. Both are from the northeast — Barkley originally from the Bronx, N.Y. before his family moved to Pennsylvania and Wadley from Newark, N.J. — and both could’ve ended up at Rutgers, as crazy as it is to think about.

Wadley, of course, wanted an offer from Rutgers, his hometown school. That never came, and he’s carried that with him since. Whether it was because of that, his coaches’ needling about being undersized or some combination of everything, Wadley has outperformed his expectations.

Barkley struggled early in high school, but got a scholarship offer from then-Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood, which he initially accepted. But then James Franklin got the head coaching gig at Penn State, and, according to a Sports Illustrated story from this summer, told Barkley, “I don’t care if I have to come to your house and slap you in the head, but you have to play for Penn State. You have no say.”

Three years and nearly 3,000 yards later, Barkley certainly has outperformed his expectations, too.

Franklin downplayed the matchup of running backs, saying this week “this is somewhat common more than it’s uncommon,” with the Big Ten’s history for runners. Barkley and Wadley downplayed it, too, toeing the company line about things being team-first, as they should. Ferentz may have made his jokes, but even he qualified it as not all about the pair of them.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore. Barkley is a Heisman candidate and probably a top-five NFL Draft pick. Wadley is, at the very least, an All-Big Ten player and should be drafted himself. If either wants the hype to turn to reality, playing well in a win Saturday is a good start.

Neither will tell you there’s pressure, though. But what prize fighter ever has?

“I wouldn’t say it’s pressure at all,” Barkley said. “The reason I say it’s not pressure is I don’t care for it. I don’t care for the attention or the Heisman hype or whenever the hype comes around.

“That’s the moral of the story. If you’re not winning games they’re not going to talk about you anyway.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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