For most Giants players, stepping onto the field at AT&T Stadium for Sunday night’s game against the Cowboys will fire up the emotions associated with one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries.
For rookie running back Saquon Barkley, it will bring back other memories.
“I’m excited to go back to the place where I was drafted,” said Barkley, who was taken second overall in April at AT&T Stadium, the first time the draft was staged at an NFL stadium. “That was the first time I’ve ever been to Dallas, and when I was there, I was getting my name called and I was walking up in front of the stage and seeing a Giants jersey.”
It was an unforgettable time for Barkley, the former Penn State star who heard his name called by commissioner Roger Goodell one pick after Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield went to the Browns at the top spot. It was a dream come true for a running back who grew up in the Bronx – even if it was the Jets and running back Curtis Martin he rooted for as a child.
“To be able to go back there and be able to start off and try to get a win in the NFC East,” he said, “that would definitely be huge.”
Barkley comes off a promising debut in last Sunday’s 20-15 loss to the Jaguars, when he rushed for 106 yards on 18 carries, including a spectacular 68-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. But for all the good in that game, the Giants still lost and put themselves at an early disadvantage in the NFC East. A win over Dallas, which also lost, would go a long way in a key early-season matchup.
Barkley isn’t quite sure what to expect, although he has been told by teammates familiar with the Cowboys-Giants rivalry that the atmosphere will be intense.
“I’ve been told it’s going to be loud, it’s going to be a fun place to play,” he said. “I’m still trying to learn and figure out this little rivalry division thing going on in the NFL.”
Even at Penn State, there were few long-standing rivalries for the Nittany Lions.
“We really didn’t have a rivalry game,” he said. “Pitt tried to be a rivalry, but I think we established that this week that we’re not giving them a chance of being a rivalry team.”
Clearly, Barkley was unimpressed with Pitt’s performance in a 51-6 drubbing at the hands of Penn State last weekend.
What about Ohio State?
“We haven’t played each other that long,” he said of Penn State’s Big Ten matchup. They've met 32 times, and annually since 1993, but compared to Ohio State vs. Michigan, that's not very long.
Barkley did have an impressive performance in his first game against Ohio State, rushing for 194 yards on 26 carries in a 38-10 loss to the Buckeyes. His opposing running back that day: Ezekiel Elliott, who had 27 carries for 153 yards and a touchdown.
Barkley and Elliott will face off again Sunday, with both likely to figure prominently in the outcome.
“I got to talk to Zeke in the offseason throughout my college career,” he said.
They communicated again a few days ago, with Elliott complimenting Barkley on his first touchdown.
On Sunday, though, it’s all business, as the Giants hope Barkley can do for their offense what Elliott did his rookie season in Dallas in 2016. Elliott ran for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns in helping the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and the NFC East championship.
Toward that end, Barkley looks at his performance last week with a critical eye.
“I went back and watched every play, every rep I had and just tried to figure out where I could be better,” he said. “The only way you can prepare is when you get to the next level. Just watching film and believing in yourself.”
The next step comes Sunday, when Barkley hopes he’ll walk out of AT&T Stadium with the same good feelings he had the last time he was there.