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Battle of the Backs: Barkley vs. Gaskin

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A comparison of the two great RBs facing off in this year’s Fiesta Bowl

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Washington State v Washington Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

As a fan, it can be hard to accept that a player for another team might be better than the player on your own team. I remember distinctly during the 2015 season checking Pro Football Focus’s freshman top-10 rankings every week and being dismayed to see Saquon Barkley rank ahead of Myles Gaskin. Were they watching the games I was watching? Gaskin was phenomenal even without adding the qualifier of “for a true freshman.”

Then Gaskin went for 138 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Apple Cup followed by 182 yards and 4 touchdowns in the bowl game against Southern Miss and order was restored to the world. Gaskin finished as the top freshman running back while Barkley was #2. Myles ended the season with 1,321 total yards from scrimmage on 5.74 yards per carry with 14 TDs compared to Barkley’s 1,237 on 5.91 yards and 8 TDs.

Both sets of fans were convinced they had the best true freshman running back in the country. Of course, Washington fans weren’t watching Saquon Barkley and Penn State fans weren’t watching Myles Gaskin. Both teams finished 2015 at 7-6 which meant they didn’t qualify as appointment viewing on a national level.

It’s fitting that the two will meet in the Fiesta Bowl in what could be the last career college game for both. Their careers have mirrored one another from the start—although some of those mirrors have been of the funhouse variety.

Neither player was expected to be a stud from day one, although Barkley would’ve been given a much better shot than Gaskin. The running back from Coplay, Pennsylvania was a consensus 4-star recruit checking in at #119 in 247sports rankings and the #13 RB in the 2015 class (and just #291 for ESPN) while Gaskin was the 406th player and the 35th ranked RB. In fact, ESPN felt that Gaskin was just the 3rd best RB in his own UW class behind Chico McClatcher who switched to WR and Austin Joyner who switched to CB.

Each running back averaged one yard per carry in his first collegiate game on a combined 6 carries. Each quickly took the reins on the starting job with stellar week 2 performances eclipsing 120+ yards on 9.5+ yards per carry. The slight edge that Gaskin enjoyed was partly due to Barkley missing two games with an injury, but the two were remarkably similar that season from a box score watcher’s perspective.

However, the tape shows that they go about their jobs in very different ways. There’s a reason that Saquon Barkley was more highly rated coming into college and will be more sought after by NFL scouts. His highlight reel is jaw-dropping even to someone who knows nothing about football.

Barkley can run through you...

...or jump over you.

And on top of the physical gifts, he’s also incredibly multi-dimensional. Barkley won the 2017 Paul Hornung Award given to the nation’s most versatile player (previously won by UW’s Shaq Thompson). The biggest reason that Barkley received Heisman front-runner buzz throughout most of the year despite putting up comparable running numbers to Gaskin is his utility as a receiver and a returner. Over his 3-year career Barkley has caught 95 balls for 1,157 yards and 8 touchdowns. This season he added kick return duties to his list of skills and averaged 28 yards per return and scored on a pair of touchdowns.

While Barkley gets the check mark over Gaskin on the eye test, he can’t compare as a pure runner. Gaskin’s vision is absolutely phenomenal. You can’t put together a highlight package that is going to truly capture his brilliance. His dominance is in the ability to turn a 2-yard gain into 6 yards rather than a 10-yard gain into 80 yards. So many times you want to yell at your TV at Myles to just hit the hole rather than risk a loss...then he slips through a previously invisible crevice and turns a certain negative play into 2nd and 5.

But here’s a long run of his anyways

Barkley is much more of a boom or bust runner. He has 4 runs of 50+ yards this season and had a run of 30+ yards in 8 of 12 games this year. Gaskin by contrast has only a single run of 50+ yards in 2017 (the one above) and only five games with a 30+ yard run. In the two years since they’ve both been entrenched as starters, Myles has never had a game where he averaged less than 3.1 yards per carry. Barkley has had five such contests, including the game against Ohio State which cost the Nittany Lions a chance at the Playoff this year.

Those traits have helped Gaskin to be every bit Barkley’s equal on the ground. To this point in their careers Gaskin has had 250 more rushing yards (3957 to 3706), 2 more rushing touchdowns (43 to 41), and 0.21 extra yards per carry (5.88 to 5.67). Myles has definitely improved as a receiver but UW does not rely on him in that role nearly to the extent that PSU has relied on Barkley over the last several seasons.

And whether you want to attribute it to the backs themselves or coincidence, both teams have taken nearly identical paths during the last three seasons. As noted previously, they had identical 7-6 records in 2015. Each team broke out in 2016 and finished the regular season with one conference loss and won its conference title game, the major difference being that UW made the playoff while Penn State came up just short. Finally, this season both teams were among the favorites for the Playoff before a pair of losses in conference play, one understandable and one not, derailed their dreams.

The backs’ paths look to diverge though once this game is over. Barkley is guaranteed to not only be in the NFL next year but a starter on whichever team high in the 1st round drafts him. He will almost undoubtedly be a top-10 and probably top-5 selection.

Myles Gaskin will also probably be in the NFL (be honest with yourselves, Husky fans) but will certainly not be a Day 1 selection. Early scouting reports suggest he may be closer to a Round 4-6 pick which means fighting from day one to make a roster and see playing time.

Both of these great players deserve to end their college careers with a win. Unless Gaskin defies the odds and comes back, only one will. But regardless of the outcome, Penn State and Washington fans will both view their guy as one of the best to ever play the position for their school. And they’ll both be right.