EAST LANSING - The last time we saw a freshman running back play like this in the first game of his Michigan State career, it was Sedrick Irvin, scoring four TDs on opening day against Purdue in 1996.
When watching Irvin that day, there was a sense that second-year coach Nick Saban had a special athlete in his program, one who could expedite the rebuilding process and help usher in a change of culture at Michigan State. There hadn't been a Spartan like Sedrick Irvin in quite a while.
On Saturday, when Le'Veon Bell rushed for 141 yards against Western Michigan - the most ever by a Michigan State freshman in a season opener - special was a word that came to mind, just like it did the first time we saw Irvin. That word also came to mind three weeks ago, when we saw Bell in pads for the first time at August camp, when he crushed linebackers while working a pass protection drill. I've seen that drill administered a hundred times. And then SMACK! I saw this guy, No. 24, chop guys down like a modern day Paul Bunyan. I checked my practice roster to double-check and make sure I knew who No. 24 was. I won't have to do that again. No. 24 is going to be an increasingly easy number and name to remember at Michigan State.
And at the post-game press conference, the first thing that Bell said about his performance against Western Michigan was that his pass protection was good.
This guy is different.
Bell played well against the Broncos. He's good. But please understand that I don't mean to put him in the Hall of Fame just yet. He's still the No. 3 guy in MSU's running back stable which includes Saturday's starter Edwin Baker and incumbent first-stringer Larry Caper, who missed the game with a hand injury.
But let the record show that Irvin didn't start any games in 1996, either. He played behind senior Duane Goulbourne. Irvin was technically the understudy, but everyone could see that he was uniquely gifted.
One difference is that Bell joins an MSU program that is deeper, farther along than the Spartan edition of 1996. Although Goulbourne was good, he wasn't as talented as Baker and Caper.
One gets the idea that Bell is going to flourish as he gets more chances. Maybe he will out-shine Caper and Baker in the weeks to come, but that's not his intention. And moving this offense is not all on him, the way it seemed to be all on Sedrick back in the mid-1990s. He doesn't have to carry this thing the way Irvin did. But on Saturday, Bell sure gave Michigan State a lift.
Bell entered the game early in the second quarter, with the score tied 7-7 and an uneasiness beginning to creep into the proceedings at sold out, glass-is-half-empty Spartan Stadium. The game didn't completely change on his first carry, but the tone of the day sure seemed to. He barreled forward for a gain of 9 on an outside zone play, behind right tackle J'Michael Deane, making a decisive, quick cut, and falling forward for yardage after contact. The play probably should have went for a gain of five. But he found nine. He looked like one of those Wisconsin running backs.
Mark Dantonio wants to put a bruising brand on Michigan State football. Bell is a guy who can move those intentions forward. He can land body blows for the Spartans as a ball carrier in a way that we haven't seen around here since Jehuu Caulcrick in 2007.
Unlike Caulcrick, Bell has the added make-you-miss dimension. Unlike Caulcrick, Bell has pretty good acceleration in the open field.
At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Bell is tough, pretty fast, with excellent vision and a nice dash of violence. If fans still bought programs, they would have been thumbing through them, trying to figure out who this No. 24 was, after just one carry, the way I did in practice a few weeks ago, after just one block. He's the type of guy that you notice when he's in the game. He plays differently. And it's the type of "different" Michigan State needs, after lacking punch in short-yardage situations in 2009.
Two plays after Bell's first carry, Keith Nichol rose above two defenders with a gutty, tricky 20-yard TD catch, a play that gave MSU a 14-7 lead and ignited what would become a blowout victory.
Did Bell's punishing run have an impact on Nichol, and on Kirk Cousins, the QB who opted to throw a jump ball in Nichol's area and give Nichol a chance to make a play? Did Bell help his teammates grow a pair? Maybe not. But he has the style of play and type of talent that can give courage to those who wear his colors.
MSU coaches have been talking up Bell since last spring, and all through August, giving us a clear warning that this guy was different, while also trying not to send too much hype and pressure in his direction.
Now that he amassed 141 yards in his college debut, the lid has been blown off. The secret it out. Le'Veon Bell is an impact freshman.
As for Irvin, there was a culture change of sorts at Michigan State as his career at MSU progressed. The change didn't totally take hold until the year after Irvin exited early for the NFL, in 1999, when MSU went 10-2 and finished in the Top 10.
Irvin had a great start at MSU, great moments as a freshman and sophomore, and finished off a very good - not great - career at MSU in 1998. He wasn't The Savior. So comparing Bell to Irvin isn't like comparing a freshman point guard to Mateen Cleaves or Magic Johnson. We are comparing him to a very good college player, not a legend. But when we arrived at Spartan Stadium the morning of the game on Saturday, did we think we would be comparing anyone to Sedrick Irvin? I didn't think we would. And in exiting Game One of the 2010 season, there is a feeling that the Spartans have more octane in the running game than we realized 24 hours ago.
"As I've been saying all along, one of the biggest difference in this football team is our tailbacks," Dantonio said. "With Larry Caper and Edwin Baker, they have a year of experience and our young guys are very, very good."
Last year, Caper and Baker had tons of ability and loads of hype. They were good by mid-season, but they were tentative in the season-opener against Montana State. It wasn't until October that some of their talents began to shine.
MSU blew out Montana State in Game One last year, but the ground game was not impressive on that day. And that shortcoming would continue to put a lid on the Spartans' potential throughout the entire season.
Coming out of MSU's 297-yard rushing performance against the Broncos, it's fair to put an asterisk on the day and say, "Yeah, but this was against Western Michigan." Fair point. WMU had one of the worst defenses in the country last year, ranking outside of the Top 100 in the nation in total defense.
And true, Ashton Leggett had an out-of-nowhere, 110-yard performance against Western Michigan a year ago, on only 14 carries, including a 71-yard TD run on MSU's third play from scrimmage.
Bell had a 75-yard run on the fifth carry of his career, which fueled MSU's third TD drive and a 21-7 lead.
Bell's output, on the stat sheet, looks very similar to Leggett's of a year ago. But if you saw Bell play live and in person, it's clear to see that his skill set is different from the rest. I'm not saying he is better than Baker or Caper. He doesn't need to be. But don't discount his numbers as being a product of poor Bronco defense. After watching Bell just this one time, you get the idea there will be many more days like this, and that his career is going to be a fun one to watch.
All He Brought Was A Smile
I remember watching an early Irvin TD run for 17 yards during that game against Purdue in 1996 and being impressed with Irvin's ability to bounce outside and sniff out daylight. I had the same feeling when watching Bell's 75-yarder on Saturday. That play was designed to go inside. Western Michigan came with a corner blitz from the boundary. Bell sensed, smelled or saw less resistance to the right, and made a Sedrick Irvin-level cut in that direction and was into the open in a flash.
Coaches often have a hard time getting freshmen to run with discipline, and run the ball to the area at which the play is designed for blocking. And then there are guys like Irvin who get a little more freedom. Is Bell one of those guys as well? We will begin to learn more as the defenses improve.
In Irvin's debut performance 14 years ago, he showed the whole package in one day: vision, burst, cutting ability, physicality. And he brought a Bible with him to the post-game press conference.
On Saturday, all that Bell brought to the podium for post-game interviews was a smile.
"Hi," Bell said, addressing a packed press trailer, outside the locker room on the north side of the stadium. "How you doing?"
The media gathering laughed. Not at him, but with him. He's brand new. This was cute. He wasn't sure how the proceedings worked at these post-game press conferences, with microphones, podiums, speakers and TV cameras.
"This is my first time," he said, smiling and natural and rightfully unembarrassed.
It won't be his last.
But we - all of us in the media - should have been there, with microphones, podiums, speakers and TV cameras when Bell made his decision to attend Michigan State University. But we weren't. Precious few of us had ever heard of him.
When he committed to Michigan State, Bell did not do it with hats of three other schools sitting in front of him on a table, on national TV at some all star game. He did it in his living room, across the table from his area recruiter, MSU linebackers coach Mike Tressel. It was simple and quiet, like in the old, old days.
He committed to Michigan State with zero fanfare, over offers from Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan and Marshall last December. Michigan State was in on two or three other Plan A running backs, and kept Bell warm after repeatedly hearing from high school coaches and various informants within their deep pool of contacts in the Buckeye state that this tough, aggressive, do-everything ball carrier from Groveport (Ohio) Madison High School was one that they had better take a close look at. It wasn't just Bell's high school coaches who talked him up, it was pretty much everyone in his league. He was a pain in the rear to play against. That's what Tressel, Dantonio and other MSU coaches kept hearing. And when some of those other Plan A running back recruits committed elsewhere, the Spartans came back and nabbed Bell. And now, boy do they look smart.
A December scholarship offer is kind of late in today's recruiting world. Those who follow football recruiting closely know it. When he received the December offer, some MSU fans might have looked for Bell's name on various recruiting lists. But his name wasn't on them. He wasn't ranked. Hence the lack of fanfare when he committed.
He enrolled in January and immediately impressed MSU coaches and teammates with his play last spring.
"In the spring I wanted to come in and prove that I could play," Bell said. "Everybody didn't think that I could come in and play on this level of football, but I just had a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to show everybody that I could play, and actually that I could play better."
Bell was asked who were the doubters.
"Just people in general," he said. "I read a couple of little topics (on the Internet) with everybody saying, 'Why would you take him?' That made me just want to play better. And there are already two great backs here. They are going to strive for greatness too."
Bell said all of the right things at his first big press conference, 10 months overdue. He credited his offensive line for blocking. He cited Caper and Baker as good teammates and talented players who will "strive for greatness too."
And then he exited the room, and tried not to grin as he walked down the steps from the interview trailer, maybe trying to act like he had done this before, been in these interviews. But he couldn't hold the smile for long. This was the first time, and his life will always be a little bit different now. And so will Michigan State.
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