As the Michigan football team returned to the sideline with the end zone covered in towels, a stadium rocking and the game in hand, Ronnie Bell had his helmet off. He was talking to Josh Gattis. It was the start of the fourth quarter and the Wolverines were leading by 24. Whatever advice was being given, it probably wasn’t urgent.
On the next drive, Bell bubbled out for a screen and got upfield. As tempers flared and flags were thrown, he tossed the ball nicely to the referee, and when his yardage got waved off in favor of a penalty on Michigan State, he bubbled out again for another 12 yards.
That was Bell on Saturday — the calm in the center of a storm, a constant amid shifting emotions. As Michigan rode its passing game to a 44-10 beatdown of the Spartans, Bell found himself the team’s leading receiver for the fifth time this year with 150 yards on nine catches.
“Ronnie Bell, that was a career game so far,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Young career, so there’s more to go, but he was running hard. It was hard to tackle Ronnie Bell today.”
Perhaps it’s worth talking about that on its own, with no predetermined narrative. A sophomore receiver, Bell’s career has been pulled through so many lenses that it can be hard to remember to give him any credit.
Just last month, after dropping a potential game-tying touchdown at Penn State, Bell unwittingly found himself the focus of both vitriol and a larger discussion about how fans treat college athletes, prompted by an email sent to him. Throughout the season, he has gotten ire simply because he was targeted more than other purportedly more talented receivers. Before that, he was pigeonholed as an ex-basketball recruit.
On Saturday, Bell got to write his own story. It was a pretty good one, and it went like this: The most receptions by a Michigan player this year and the first time a receiver has broken 100 yards. A spark lit on a 98-yard second-quarter touchdown drive when senior quarterback Shea Patterson extended a play and Bell found an open spot in the middle of the field, then turned to make it an 18-yard gain. Two more key catches on the next drive, the first a second-down curl for a short gain and the next a slot fade that went for 42 yards when a defender fell down, giving Bell nothing but grass to run in as he stumbled towards the sideline. Another curl on Michigan’s first drive of the second half, this one for 20 yards and to set up a Donovan Peoples-Jones touchdown on the very next play.
You get the picture.
“We’ve developed a certain kind of chemistry,” Patterson said. “And I think we just play well together — Donovan and Ronnie and all those guys. When stuff breaks down in the pocket, they just find the open space. At that point, you’re just playing backyard football.”
Bell is a two-star basketball recruit, he dropped a key pass in State College and he does not have the same NFL potential as Peoples-Jones or Nico Collins. It turns out, he’s still pretty good.
Good enough to have earned the trust of Patterson and Harbaugh. Good enough to have kept it after that drop last month and good enough to have bounced back, to sit at a podium smiling after a dominant performance over a rival just three games later.
“The support that I got — my family, my friends, this team — it’s unreal and it’s a blessing,” Bell said. “And they all picked me up.”
Bell hasn’t scored a touchdown yet this year, a fact brought up afterwards. It doesn’t matter. The Wolverines carved up the Spartans for 467 yards on Saturday in a dominant win, and Bell was right in the middle of it. In a receiving depth chart that includes Collins, Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black — three NFL talents presumed to have a stranglehold on targets when the season started — Bell has carved out a place for himself at the top.
“I don’t know, man, there’s just something special about the vibe that we had today when Shea was throwing the ball in warmups,” Bell said. “Guys were just running around, everybody was playing so hard and we just executed at a high level and it showed.”
And, on the best day of Michigan’s season so far, Bell was the story. For once, he was the author.