Aug. 31, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Nobody gets a second chance to make a first impression, which is something Le'Veon Bell doesn't have to fret about.
With the national college football spotlight focused almost entirely on Michigan State's season opener against noted giant-killer Boise State, Bell made 50-plus first impressions while carrying the 13th-ranked Spartans to a 17-13 victory.
Some, most assuredly, even left bruises.
Major awards aren't won on the first weekend of the season, and most are inextricably linked to overall team success over the course of 12, 13 or 14 games. However, a debut such as Bell's as a featured back against a quality opponent such as Boise State isn't something decision-makers will have forgotten in late November, as long as he provides weekly reminders.
Bell carried the ball 44 times for 210 yards, and two touchdowns. He was second to tight end Dion Sims in receptions with six for 55 yards.
And on MSU's go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, Bell's crushing block-pickup of blitzing Bronco linebacker Blake Renaud gave Andrew Maxwell the time to convert a crucial third-and-6 situation with an 18-yard sideline toss to Sims to the BSU 7-yard line.
Two plays later, Bell carried Boise State cornerback Jerrell Gavins on his back across the goal line for the decisive 5-yard touchdown run. Then, in the life-sapping final six minutes, Bell put the Spartans on his shoulders with nine carries on Michigan State's final 13-play, 52-yard drive, the last a Maxwell kneel-down 6 yards away from the Bronco end zone.
"He does a great job of getting those extra yards," said Sims, who had six catches for 65 yards. "There was a lot of stuff that wasn't there, but with his extra effort, he'd just go and make plays. He's a big-time playmaker. He played the same from the start to the end.
"He's capable of way more. He does everything."
Bell's already done plenty, and he's barely out of the starting blocks.
He had MSU's first 40-carry performance since Javon Ringer rushed the ball 44 times for 198 yards against Indiana in 2008. Against Notre Dame a week earlier, Ringer rushed for 201 yards, and 49 games went by before Bell joined him in the 200-yard club.
Only two-time Heisman Trophy contender Lorenzo White had more rushes in a game -- with 49 or more three times and a school-record 56 against Indiana in the Rose Bowl season of 1987 -- among Spartan ball-carriers.
In addition to his best game as a receiver, he also had a career-best 265 all-purpose yards and was smart enough to know that he didn't do it all on his own.
"I have to give a lot of credit to my offensive line," were the first words out of his mouth in the postgame press conference.
"The receivers blocked on the edge and the tight ends and fullbacks, and even Maxwell, making checks at the line of scrimmage to the right play when they showed blitz..., you have to give a lot of credit to those guys," Bell said.
You knew something special was in the works on MSU's third play when Bell hurdled a Bronco tackler en route to sensational 23-yard gain, which set up his own shoulder-pad popping 1-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead.
In the second quarter, Maxwell audibled Bell into a 31-yard lightning strike off right tackle.
Then, early in the third quarter, Bell came up a couple gulps of oxygen short of becoming a prohibitive frontrunner.
Trailing 13-10, Michigan State's toes were on the edge of the cliff after the Broncos tackled Bell for a 6-yard loss to the Spartan 4. After an incomplete pass set up third-and-16, offensive coordinator Dan Roushar called for a handoff to Bell, presumably to take some pressure off punter Mike Sadler by giving him a little more room to operate.
The play broke down almost immediately, but before Roushar had a chance to wish he had called for a pass play, Bell did his best Marcus Allen impersonation by doubling back through the backfield. After running into his own blocker at the 4, Bell made it to the open field, and a block by Maxwell got him all the way to the MSU 39 before he sputtered to a stop.
"Yeah, I was definitely a little tired," Bell said. "But everybody on the field was getting a little tired."
Although the Spartans eventually got into scoring position after Bell's 35-yard gain, the drive ended on one of MSU's four troublesome turnovers that kept the game closer than it might have been without them.
It's not hard to imagine how much brighter the spotlight on Bell would be today had he put the Spartans ahead with a 96-yard touchdown run.
Even after he got to 200 yards, and senior offensive guard Chris McDonald gave him what appeared to be a congratulatory hug, Bell professed to be oblivious to his achievements, including bettering his career-highs by 24 carries and 69 yards.
"Oh, we hug all the time, in the huddle," Bell said. "All the time.
"I was just out there running. I had no idea how many carries or how many yards I had. I was just out there running, you know, trying to win the game. You know, that's the most I've ran in my collegiate career, and it's a great accomplishment for me, but I've still got things to work on and get better at."
There probably isn't enough money in MSU's athletic marketing coffers to generate the kind of buzz created by a performance like Bell's against an opponent that came into Spartan Stadium with six-straight wins against teams from BCS conferences including season-openers versus Oregon (2009), Virginia Tech (2010) and Georgia (2011) and Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
The attention Michigan State got before the game, and enhanced by Bell during and after it, wasn't lost on head coach Mark Dantonio.
"We said this was going to be a game with a lot of media exposure, and our young players had to prepare for that environment," he said. "I thought the crowd and atmosphere was outstanding. It helps everybody when you play on a big stage like this."
By personally outgaining Boise State 210-206, Bell earned a respectful tip-of-the-hat from a defeated foe.
"He's a big guy," said Broncos safety Lee Hightower. "He's a very talented running back. There's a reason that he had all the hype coming in. He's a good guy. He's definitely going to do good things in the future."