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Saquon Barkley makes big plays in NFL debut

After Saquon Barkley’s first two carries amounted to minus-three yards, the Jaguars said, “Welcome to the NFL.”

After his 68-yard touchdown run breathed life back into the game, the Giants replied, “Welcome to Saquon.”

The second overall draft pick drew the short end of the stick as far as rookie debuts go, making his against the No. 2 defense in yards and scoring from last season. The Jaguars, who returned a franchise-record six Pro Bowlers from that side of the ball, showed little drop-off after coming within minutes of reaching Super Bowl LII. They held the Giants to just eight first downs and one touchdown, which was a wash because the Jaguars’ defense scored one of its own on a 32-yard interception return by linebacker Myles Jack. The defensive touchdown gave Jacksonville a 20-9 lead with 11:24 left in the game, sucking the energy out of a MetLife Stadium crowd that just suffered through a 3-13 season with the Giants in 2017.

That record, however, gave them Barkley. He then proceeded to show them on the ensuing possession why he was worthy of the pick and gave them hope. With 10:52 left on the clock, Barkley took a handoff from Eli Manning on the left hash, escaped one tackle at the line of scrimmage and another as he bounced to the right hash. At the same time, wide receiver Sterling Shepard saw green space open up. He just needed to block one defender, which he did, and Barkley turned the corner and shot up the sideline past another diving Jaguar. Then it was 68 yards to the end zone to make it a one-possession game with plenty of time left. Coach Pat Shurmur said after the game that it was actually the same play call from earlier in the game when Barkley’s dive over the line of scrimmage came up short on fourth down.

“It was simple execution,” Barkley said of his first career touchdown. “The coach made a great call; we felt that we had a great read there with the running game and the O-line did a tremendous job of blocking not only that play, but all day and Evan [Engram] made a huge block. If you go back and watch the film, that kind of opened it up and that backside block was huge. It created space for me to make a move one-on-one with the guy and Shep [Sterling Shepard] also made a great block at the end of the play also to give me that space on the sideline to find a way to score. …We came back to the sideline and [Shepard] said ‘I got you, two-six’, and he made a heck of a block.”

While the Jaguars held the lead for the final two and a half quarters, the Giants were always within striking distance. In other words, they were one Odell Beckham Jr. play away from making it a game. This time, however, Barkley provided the spark.

“I’ve told him this multiple times, I’ve had dreams of seeing Barkley running down the field, breaking for the end zone,” Beckham said. “I went to a school, LSU, where I watched Jeremy Hill come out the backfield multiple times. There is no better feeling than running the ball and somebody takes it 60, or however long it was, to the house. The only thing I ever told him was, ‘Be you. You don’t have to do anything for anybody else, any outside pressure, anything anybody said, you don’t have to be that, just be you.’”

The Giants kept the Jaguars off the scoreboard for the rest of the game, but the opposite was also true. The Giants failed the two-point conversion attempt on another rush by Barkley, missing an opportunity to make it a situation where a field goal could tie it. The last attempt for the offense came on a fourth-and-six from the Jaguars 36, but Manning could not connect with Shepard down the right sideline, the same one Barkley had just blazed. A chance still remained when the Giants forced a three-and-out with less than a minute to go, but Kaelin Clay muffed the ensuing punt. Jacksonville recovered, and Blake Bortles took a knee for the 20-15 victory.

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“It was amazing [to score the touchdown]; it was a great feeling, but it was a feeling that came and went,” Barkley said. “One touchdown is not going to win the game, and that touchdown didn’t win the game this week, but to get in there, it was a dream come true to find the end zone. I did keep the ball, but it was just like move on, next play, and find a way to get in there again.”

Next week the Giants travel to face the Cowboys, who two years ago drafted Ezekiel Elliott and the top-five pick went on to lead the NFL in rushing. Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt made it two years in a row for rookie rushers in 2017. With 106 yards on Sunday, Barkley is off to a good start to become the third.

“My realistic expectation was that I expected to win,” Barkley said. “Every game you come into, you expect to win by any means. It didn’t matter if I had 100 in the air or 100 on the ground, or if I had 20 rushing yards; I’m not really a stats guy, I don’t really care about stats. I want to get the win and that was my expectation, but sometimes you fall short on your expectations and it means you have to continue to work and we have to go back to the drawing board and go back to practice and get treatment, recover and get our bodies right and continue to get better.”

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