Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Penn State's Saquon Barkley is "maybe the best player I've seen on tape" — in the same class with memorable Big Ten backs Ron Dayne, Eddie George, Tim Biakabutuka, Le'Veon Bell and NU greats Darnell Autry and Damien Anderson.
"He has balance, toughness, amazing vision," Fitzgerald said Monday of Barkley. "He's durable, he catches the ball … wow."
Barkley's surge to the top of the Heisman Trophy discussion is in contrast to what has transpired at Northwestern, which hosts fourth-ranked Penn State at 11 a.m. Saturday.
The Wildcats (2-2) are averaging 3.4 yards per rush, 12th in the Big Ten. Last year Justin Jackson led the conference with 1,524 yards, and the team averaged 4 yards per carry.
"I thought we'd be much better running the football," Fitzgerald said, citing the need for better play at right tackle.
Another factor has been the health of Jackson, dogged by what's believed to be a quadriceps injury. Fitzgerald mentioned it after Jackson was held to 18 yards at Duke and said after NU's 33-24 loss at Wisconsin that Jackson had not practiced all week.
"Justin felt better today than he has in a month; that's encouraging," Fitzgerald said Monday.
Jackson acknowledged getting hurt during the Week 3 victory over Bowling Green and "trying to get the strength back."
NU's top rusher Saturday in Madison was Jeremy Larkin, a redshirt freshman from Cincinnati and cousin of Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin. He gained 37 yards on seven carries as the Wildcats alternated between him and Jackson.
"You try to sprinkle the touches," Fitzgerald said, "and see if we can get somebody hot."