Silence fell across Michigan Stadium midway through the second quarter Saturday when Michigan football star receiver Ronnie Bell remained on the turf following a 31-yard punt return.
Bell was attended to by the medical staff for several minutes before attempting to walk off the field. He was unable to put pressure on his right leg and ultimately needed trainers and teammates to carry him toward the sideline, where the examinations continued.
Bell sat with a towel draped on his head behind the Michigan bench before heavily limping toward the cart for a ride to the locker room.
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“Just worried about Ronnie Bell right now,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the Wolverines’ 47-14 win in Ann Arbor. “As we come out of this game, that’s the biggest concern. He’ll get an MRI tonight, and we’ll find out the severity of the injury.”
The injury could prove catastrophic for a Michigan team that already lacked proven talent on the perimeter behind Bell, the unquestioned No. 1 receiver. With Western Michigan hanging tough early in the second quarter, Bell created separation against single coverage downfield for a 76-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Cade McNamara. He also made a highlight-reel catch down the left sideline using only the fingertips on his right hand, though the play was erased when Bell was called for offensive pass interference.
“The one-handed catch was amazing, man,” Harbaugh said. “I didn’t think there was any way he was still in bounds. And the big play he made on the adjustment, the post, it really cracked the game open. We got the big play when we needed it.
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“We had established that we could run the ball at that point. They were starting to get lower and lower and lower with the secondary. Then Ronnie got behind them and made the contested catch, kept his feet and took it in for the score. Then another big play on the punt return. Fabulous. Phenomenal.”
And then Harbaugh caught himself for half a second, perhaps realizing the harsh reality of those two huge plays juxtaposed with the image of Bell in serious pain on the turf: “All prayers are with Ronnie right now,” he added.
Now a senior, Bell had been the team’s leading receiver each of the last two years. He had 48 catches for 758 yards and one touchdown in 2019 and caught 26 passes for 401 yards and one touchdown during the shortened 2020 season.
Who can fill Bell’s place as a potential No. 1 receiver is a question Michigan’s coaches will examine throughout the week. Outside of Bell, who finished as the leading receiver with 76 yards, none of U-M’s wideouts or tight ends eclipsed 23 yards until a fourth-quarter touchdown by reserve Daylen Baldwin.
Erick All, Cornelius Johnson and Mike Sainristil combined to make six catches for 42 yards, albeit in a game where the Wolverines only attempted 17 passes.
“It’s very difficult seeing a teammate, a brother out there hurt,” McNamara said. “Ronnie is a big part of this team, and I’m praying for whatever it is, for him to be OK in any sort of fashion. Obviously it’s super difficult. You hate to see it.”
Mental error proves costly for defense
In the glow of victory, the frustration was there.
A 75-yard touchdown drive allowed on Western Michigan’s opening possession bothered Aidan Hutchinson hours after it materialized.
The consequence was minor in the grand scheme of things, but the way it unfolded annoyed Hutchinson.
After the Broncos failed to move the ball on the first two plays of the possession, edge defender David Ojabo was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after he was caught taunting a Western Michigan player.
The infraction moved the Broncos near midfield and kickstarted their march to the end zone. At one point, WMU quarterback Kaleb Eleby completed four straight passes and moved the Broncos to the 5-yard line. Not long thereafter, La’Darius Jefferson plunged over the goal line to even the score at 7.
“Just a dumb penalty,” Hutchinson said. “We can’t be doing that. And I don’t what that did. It must have rattled us a little bit, that penalty. … We got to work on that, for sure. Just no dumb penalties and we’ll be fine.
Cornerback Vincent Gray, seated beside Hutchinson, agreed with his teammate.
“We can’t beat ourselves,” he said.
By and large, the Wolverines’ defense didn’t.
Michigan’s defense wasn’t flagged the rest of the game.
On the mic
Michigan radio play-by-play announcer Jim Brandstatter announced just before kickoff on Saturday that he and analyst Dan Dierdorf would retire at season’s end.
“As Crash Davis said at the end of ‘Bull Durham,’ we’re hanging ’em up,” Brandstatter said during the broadcast. “That being said, two words come to mind for me: thank you. And those two words are completely inadequate in expressing my sentiments to all of you that have been so supportive.”
Brandstatter, 71, has been one of the voices of Michigan football for more than four decades. The host of “Michigan Replay” as far back as 1980 (now “Inside Michigan Football”), he has been on the call as either analyst or play-by-play announcer since the mid-80s. For 30 years, Brandstatter was also the analyst on Detroit Lions radio broadcasts.
Dierdorf, 72, is a the Pro Football and College Football Hall of Famer and is best known as one an analyst on “Monday Night Football” from 1987-1999. After 15 years with CBS calling NFL games, Dierdorf joined Brandstatter for U-M radio games in 2014.
The pair were teammates at U-M and were both on Bo Schembechler’s first team in 1969.
Hutchinson flips the script
With 7:34 remaining in the third quarter, Western Michigan reached the Wolverines’ 21-yard line during a rare foray across midfield after scoring a touchdown on the opening drive.
On first and 10, WMU quarterback Kaleb Eleby dropped back and glanced to his left, unaware that Hutchinson was careening off the back side ready to pounce. Hutchinson leapt toward Eleby and swiped both hands down across the football, knocking it to the turf for the first sack fumble of his career and a loss of 7 yards.
After a pair of incompletions by Eleby on second and third down, Hutchinson snuffed out the remaining embers of a scoring threat by blocking a 40-yard field goal attempt from Parker Sampson.
“I don’t know if I (actually) blocked that,” Hutchinson said with a smile after the game. “Who knows.
“I think I was playing pretty good all game. Finally the quarterback held the ball for a little while and I got the sack. It was fun. Happy to get my first strip sack. I didn’t even know what to do out there. I just started hitting my head I think.”
Free Press staff reports contributed.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football left hoping for best with Ronnie Bell’s injury