Miller, Bell play lead roles in Big Ten opener
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- What a difference a year has made for Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller and Michigan State tailback Le'Veon Bell.
When their teams played last year, Bell came in behind starter Edwin Baker. Miller, making his second start as a true freshman, gave way to a nondescript senior, Joe Bauserman, in a 10-7 loss to the Spartans.
Now they are the headliners for their teams and the Big Ten Conference, entering Saturday's showdown at Spartan Stadium between No. 14 OSU (4-0) and No. 20 MSU (3-1).
With Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson struggling to rediscover his magic and Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball dealing with injuries, they've become the marquee names.
Miller is rushing for 110.2 yards per game, throwing for 188.5 yards and has accounted for seven touchdowns as a runner and passer. He's drawn to the end zone like fish to bait.
Bell's 117 carries for 610 yards rank second to Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson (122 for 699 yards) among major-college runners. He hurdles and stiff-arms defenders, while picking up blitzers like radar.
"Bell plays hard and tough," ESPN analyst Chris Spielman said in a phone interview. "And he runs with a real passion. He's a special back."
Spielman, who won the Lombardi Award at Ohio State in 1987 and set the Detroit Lions' career tackles record, still lives in Columbus. He keeps a close eye on the Buckeyes and the way new head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman have developed Miller.
"Braxton is more comfortable throwing the ball this year," Spielman said, "and he's a really good runner. He could be a running back.
"But now he's more comfortable with Urban and Tom Herman. Frankly, they are not 4-0 without him.
"Urban wants a quarterback who is a runner because that makes it difficult for defenses."
Meyer, who coached Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow at Florida, raised eyebrows earlier this season by saying this about Miller and Tebow on his radio call-in show:
"Very similar guys. They're both competitive human beings. They're both very talented people. Braxton has more talent. Tim is probably more of a grinder."
Miller, only a sophomore, could challenge for a Heisman this year or next. This week's Sports Illustrated straw poll of Heisman voters had Miller sixth and Bell ninth. They have not gained the support of others such as West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, who led the straw poll.
Dantonio, noting that he considered Bell and Baker "co-starters" at this time last year, was asked where Bell's improvement has come in the last 12 months.
"Where he's grown is as a complete football player," Dantonio said. "He's always been very, very good. But he's gotten bigger (6-foot-2, 244 pounds), stronger.
"The longer you're at someplace, the more nuances you know about that particular concept, that particular offense you're involved in. I think he's just grown with us.
"But he's a downhill runner. He can spin on you, power through you. He gives you a variety of ways at running the football. He's a very good football player."
Dantonio said he recruited Miller when he was a senior at Wayne High in Huber Heights, Ohio.
Former Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel didn't offer a scholarship to Bell, who was a low-hype, two-star recruit at Groveport Madison High in Columbus.
"I grew up in Columbus and I watched Ohio State," said Bell, now a junior. "Beanie Wells was one of my favorites. I tried to run like him and took a couple things from his game, like the stiff-arm."
Bell told me the "stiff-arm" is his favorite move as a runner, and that tells you all you need to know about his approach to the game.
Meyer said that stopping Bell "will be a great test" for outside linebacker Ryan Shazier, whose 40 tackles lead the Buckeyes. The rest of the defense also factors into stopping him, but not as much as the Spartans need 11 to stop Miller.
"He brings a different dynamic to the football game," Dantonio said. "A different dynamic that Everett Golson didn't do as much in our Notre Dame game. Where Golson may look to throw first, (Miller) may look to run first."
Meyer said Miller has made "pretty dramatic" improvement and is "playing at a very high level" right now.
Dantonio was asked where Miller has made the biggest strides in one year.
"Well," Dantonio said, "I think a number of things. First of all, physically he's more developed. He's a bigger (6-2, 220 pounds), stronger guy than he was last year.
"Now he has all of last year under his belt, a spring, summer practice, four more games, a new offense under his belt. He's a much more experienced player. He's more in control. He's seen more as a leader.
"All those things are helping him grow as a player. You've seen immense growth in a year. He's a very exciting player, dynamic player, and he makes them go. He's a tailback that can throw in the backfield. He can make you miss, do a lot of different things, run with power and then throw it."
The Buckeyes don't have a running back with as many as 200 yards after four games. Imagine Bell, had Tressel offered him a scholarship, taking handoffs from and blocking for Miller in scarlet and gray. That would be something, wouldn't it?
Instead they are the best players on rival teams -- both vying to be the difference in the first big conference game of the season.