- Travis Haney, ESPN Insider
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Make no mistake that Le'Veon Bell, from first-quarter hurdle to final touchdown, was the star of Michigan State's 17-13 victory against the Boise State Broncos. He finished with 265 total yards on a cold-tub-worthy 50 touches, immediately launching himself into the Heisman discussion.
But here is the reality for the Michigan State Spartans: Their fate as a Rose Bowl contender -- or something more -- isn't hitched to Bell's running as much as the team's unproven passing game and particularly its play at receiver. That's the likely difference between a trip to Pasadena and a trip to Tampa or Orlando come bowl time.
That the Spartans are one critical (but fixable) weakness away from having a legitimate stake in the Big Ten and national title races, in a season that might provide one of the more favorable paths to both goals than they'll see in coming years, is just one of the big takeaways coming out of the first Saturday of the 2012 college football season. We learned a lot in Week 1 (with a few games still to come), from Clemson's improved defense to the (seemingly) rocky starts for a pair of top-10 squads to an impressive performance from an SEC East team.
For Michigan State, the play that typified its offensive weakness came just before the half, when Bennie Fowler, the junior receiver expected to emerge if he can stay healthy, had correctly read the Boise State zone and found himself wide open in the seam.
Quarterback Andrew Maxwell, starting his first game, saw Fowler streaking and zipped the ball in his direction -- well, sort of. It sailed about 2 or 3 yards behind Fowler, who never had a prayer of even touching the pass, and the Broncos had their third interception in the half.
Hit those open and available throws, and the Spartans will be in business. Miss them, and Bell will have to work ... and work ... and work, and the defense will have to play almost flawlessly to keep Michigan State in games.
Later, Maxwell made the throw on that seam route -- but Tony Lippett, who mostly played cornerback in 2011, fumbled the ball away.
"It's awfully tough to win a game with four turnovers," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said.
Lippett and running back Larry Caper tipped Maxwell passes earlier in the game, leading to his first two interceptions. The second resulted in a Boise State pick-six, the Broncos' only touchdown of the game.
For the passing game, the errors were collaborative.
"It's the first game," junior tight end Dion Sims said. "We had some growing pains. It's a matter of shaking it off. We'll be fine as the season goes along."
Sims might be right, because he could be the answer for all of this. He had seven catches for 65 yards, serving as a second-half safety blanket for Maxwell after the playbook had been reduced to mostly handoffs and dump-offs. Sims, who appears more like a lineman at 6-foot-5, 285 pounds (one analyst said he could wind up a tackle in the NFL), had a nice leaping grab to set up the winning score. And he later caught a big third-down pass to move the chains and keep the clock rolling.
If Sims can continue to be a reliable target, he could buy time for the rest of the receivers to come along and Maxwell to get his footing in the new role.
And Bell will help, too. Defenses are going to have to scheme for him, leaving things like that seam route open down the field.
"We got open," Fowler said. "That's what we have to take away is that we did our jobs to be open. We've got to make the catches, and Andrew's got to make the throws. We will, and he will."
If they do by the time that treacherous back-to-back at Michigan and Wisconsin rolls around in late October, Michigan State might have that Rose Bowl team. Or more.
"We knew we'd have to grow," Dantonio said. "The thing we have to do is grow and move forward."
Now about those favorable circumstances we alluded to earlier. While we're not going to dismiss Michigan's Big Ten title chances after the Wolverines got blasted by Alabama on Saturday night (the Crimson Tide are capable of doing that to a lot of teams; and let's not forget how they crushed the Spartans in their bowl game two seasons ago, 49-7), it's fair to say that they are not yet at that top-10-in-the-country level they ascended to in the preseason polls. Wisconsin nearly got upset by an FCS team (Northern Iowa) in its season opener, and while Ohio State displayed plenty of talent and energy in Urban Meyer's Buckeyes debut, its postseason ban makes it a nonfactor in the conference title discussion.
In other words, Michigan State's BCS chances look as good as any team's in the Big Ten right now (Nebraska also looked solid in Week 1), and with Meyer and Brady Hoke both burning up the recruiting trail, the league isn't going to be getting easier anytime soon. We'll see if the Spartans can get their passing game shored up enough to take advantage of this year's opportunity.
A first step for Clemson's defense
There wasn't much left of Brent Venables' voice by the end of Clemson's game Saturday. With what was remaining, he smiled as he told me it felt like his first game. And it was, in a sense. It was his first as Clemson's defensive coordinator, his first in royal purple instead of Oklahoma's crimson.
The Clemson Tigers could not vanquish the haunting presence of last season's Orange Bowl, where they allowed 70 points to the West Virginia Mountaineers -- not in one game, anyway -- but they did make critical plays defensively in their 26-19 win against the Auburn Tigers, a first step in revamping their defense.
Not before a reminder of what the Mountaineers did repeatedly, however. A coverage breakdown late in the first quarter resulted in a 54-yard touchdown catch for Auburn speedster Emory Blake. Venables said safety help should have been there for corner Darius Robinson, who was trailing Blake by several yards.
More than a few Clemson fans likely had that here-we-go-again feeling -- but that was Auburn's only TD of the game. Clemson gave up some yards on the edge to Auburn's quick runners -- sophomore Tre Mason stuck out as someone to watch in future weeks -- but it never got in the end zone again.
Kiehl Frazier was sacked twice on Auburn's final drive, and his throw on fourth down didn't even land in bounds. Head coach Dabo Swinney said Clemson practices that two-minute drill often, and the defense rarely allows a score.
"We made a lot of good plays down the stretch," said Venables, who had been at Oklahoma since 1999, before Swinney hired him in January. "We responded to some adversity in a big-time way. I just love the tough attitude we showed in the second half."
Auburn isn't West Virginia -- and Frazier certainly isn't Geno Smith -- but it was something on which Clemson can build. Venables admitted that he had been using the Orange Bowl defensive disaster as motivation for his players in recent weeks, stoking their inner fires.
"People don't think too much of us," he told them. Swinney had in fact used the same motivation, calling the defensive line -- especially the tackles -- the team's "weak link." That phrase is written on a dry-erase board in the D-tackles' meeting room, one of the players said. Well, Venables told me he thought the inexperienced defensive line played above his expectations for the first game.
The same extends to Clemson's similarly inexperienced offensive line, which figured to be at a mismatch all night against Auburn's seasoned defensive line. But it did enough to provide holes for Andre Ellington, Tajh Boyd and the Clemson ground game.
Clemson rushed for 320 yards against an SEC front, including 231 yards for Ellington. No one has ever questioned Ellington's ability, just his durability. When healthy, he's as good as anyone in his conference. As for Boyd, he shed some weight in the offseason, and it showed in his ability to get out of the pocket and scramble when needed. His 58 yards on the ground often came in spots when Clemson needed to hang onto the ball.
Those elements could help keep Clemson balanced and allow Boyd to make more sound decisions, as opposed to his poor throws late in the 2011 season. Clemson played far from a perfect game, but it managed enough plays on both sides of the ball to present the possibility that it has made improvements from its late slide last year.
It's too early to judge South Carolina
Those watching the South Carolina Gamecocks on Thursday night probably turned off their TVs thinking, "How was that the ninth-ranked team in the country?" It's a logical thought after the Gamecocks had to labor for a 17-13 win at Vanderbilt, but it's best not to exaggerate their performance.
For one, quarterback Connor Shaw's balky shoulder derailed all fluidity in the offense. As a running quarterback who isn't built like, say, Tim Tebow, Shaw will have to protect himself better at impact. The play he was hurt on was rather innocuous, really, but he'll take some hits during the course of the season in that league. One thing you noticed was Shaw's grit, coming back repeatedly after additional shots to the bruised shoulder. It's a cliche in sports, but it's obvious the kid gives what he's got -- even if he's a modestly talented QB.
Secondly, the Vanderbilt Commodores really do seem to have left the "same old Vanderbilt" behind. They could have easily folded after going down 10-0 and failing to take advantage of a couple of South Carolina turnovers -- and ESPN colleague Rod Gilmore, watching the game with me, thought they might. But the Commodores repeatedly responded.
They do not have elite talent, but the Dores, just like last year, will be competitive more often than not -- and they'll knock off someone they're not supposed to. Recall how close they were to Arkansas in 2011.
After speaking with members of South Carolina's coaching staff, they're not nearly as upset with the result as you might think. "Tough game, like we knew it would be," one said, then reminded me that last year's effort against Vanderbilt was more uneven -- and that came in the middle of the season.
There are plenty of areas for correction, the offensive line and secondary for starters, but the Gamecocks typically haven't played well in openers. They have often slogged their way to wins in those Thursday night kickoff games (matchups with NC State twice and Mississippi State are a couple of recent examples). Heck, East Carolina had South Carolina down 17 early in a neutral-site opener in 2011 -- and the Gamecocks wound up winning a program-high 11 games.
One particular area of curiosity Thursday was how Marcus Lattimore would fare in his first game back from ACL surgery, his first real contact considering Steve Spurrier had been gentle with him during camp.
It was an odd night for the junior, who very well could be in the midst of a season-long NFL audition. Lattimore put the ball on the turf on his first carry of the season. Rain or no rain, that was a stunner. Ball security was one of the knocks on him in high school, but he didn't fumble his freshman year until the team's bowl game (the hit, by former FSU corner Greg Reid, also knocked him from the game).
Lattimore at times looked like he did pre-injury, with smooth and long strides in the open field, but he also appeared somewhat rusty. He missed holes on a couple of occasions, and he looked a half-step slower, although he was never a burner in the first place.
By the end of the night, he had 110 yards and a pair of scores, the type of solid stat line you'd expect from a fringe Heisman candidate. More importantly, though, he was able to get the Gamecocks through those late-game moments -- along with runs from a banged-up Shaw -- allowing them to escape Nashville. South Carolina is 1-0, bottom line, and it has a C-USA back-to-back of East Carolina and UAB before getting back into SEC play with Missouri. It should look like a different team by then.
Impressive start to new Boise era
We talk a lot about Chris Petersen's ability to coach, and even in a (rare) loss, his street cred is only going to go up. With the disparity in total yardage (461 to 206) and time of possession (39:19 to 20:41), the game should not have been close. But the Boise State Broncos just about won it.
Some of it was Michigan State, which repeatedly made mistakes. But some of it was Boise, which played hard and smart and made the most of those errors. The Broncos' offense was held to two short field goals (23 and 19 yards), and first-time starter Joe Southwick threw an interception near the goal line in the first half.
Boise, down four, also was stopped on fourth-and-2 at the MSU 42-yard line with 6:38 to go. It was right there. Despite being clearly outmanned at the line of scrimmage, it was right there. That's impressive.
The Broncos struggled most in running the ball, especially inside. Boise rushed for 37 yards, averaging 1.5 yards a carry. "That's a great defense over there," Southwick said. "You really have to give them credit."
That's right. And Boise State won't see anything like that again, with its toughest remaining games coming Sept. 22 against BYU and Oct. 6 at Southern Miss. Running might have been a problem against a veteran front, but would it be at all surprising if senior back D.J. Harper finished with a 1,000-yard season?
Boise State failed to make the critical plays down the stretch, something we've almost come to expect from Petersen's teams,
but an inexperienced bunch grew up on the road. It might lose another game, because it has in the past with better teams, but it likely won't lose two more. The Broncos do not appear to be BCS busters in 2012, but they look like conference champions again.
Oklahoma needs time to adjust
Losing veteran center Ben Habern (a neck injury ended his career) and guard Tyler Evans (a knee injury ended his season) created some concern about what was supposed to be the Sooners' best line in years.
Well, that notion was validated in their 24-7 win at UTEP, a game that was 10-7 early in the fourth quarter. Landry Jones, sacked 10 times all of last season, went down three times at the hands of the Miners.
The run game was often stifled at the line, although JUCO transfer Damien Williams provided a breath of hope in the final minutes with a 65-yard burst through the line and into the end zone.
The defense, with Mike Stoops back in charge, gave up 177 yards on the ground to Nathan Jeffery -- but the Miners didn't have an offensive touchdown in the game. The front seven is still a concern moving forward.
Oklahoma has an odd September setup: It plays Florida A&M next week, then it's off, then it hosts Kansas State, and then it's off again. Plenty of time to get settled.
Cordarrelle's first impressions
With a single run, Cordarrelle Patterson taking a reverse and dancing through -- and running past -- NC State defenders, Da'Rick Rogers seemed a distant memory.
The Tennessee Volunteers, 35-21 winners, found a threat that might be even more sustained than Rogers, the dismissed 1,000-yard receiver in 2011, and Justin Hunter, who appeared to be the No. 1 last season until tearing his ACL.
Patterson debuted with six catches for 93 yards, and he added the 67-yard reverse for a score.
ESPN draft analyst Kevin Weidl said NFL folks he's spoken with would lean Patterson over Hunter right now, just after that one-game performance. Some even breathed the name of someone who plays on that same Georgia Dome turf, former Alabama and current Falcons receiver Julio Jones.
Georgia State won't test Patterson and the Tennessee offense, but the Florida Gators have the speed to match up. The Gators visit Neyland Stadium on Sept. 15 in a game that already looks to have huge SEC East title implications. With UF having to grind out a win with Bowling Green, Georgia taking a while to separate from Buffalo and South Carolina's aforementioned sluggish start, it's fair to say that the Vols had the best opening weekend in their division. We'll know more about whether they're a legitimate challenger to the East crown after the Florida game.
Travis Haney spent the opening days of the college football season in East Lansing, Mich., and Atlanta, and in his Week 1 takeaways column, he covers the Spartans' big opportunity, Clemson's new defense, the beginning of a new Boise era and more.