LINCOLN — Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell still isn't sure what he should have done differently to avoid a 15-yard penalty on an open-field block that flattened an unsuspecting Wisconsin defender during the Big Ten title game.
Devin Smith was sprinting after receiver Jamal Turner in the third quarter and never saw Bell, who drove his left shoulder into the senior defensive back. The collision flipped Smith upside-down, the back of his head hitting the turf as his feet flailed in the air. Smith did not return.
The play instantly became a popular Internet link, now with more than 4.3 million views on YouTube.
Bell was apprehensive, nearly three weeks later, to celebrate a hit that knocked a player out of the game and momentarily cost NU a touchdown. Even in the moment, when he first noticed Smith motionless on the field, Bell appeared to be trying to quell any impromptu on-field celebrations.
“I didn't mean anything malicious by it,” Bell said.
Bell doesn't know exactly what he did wrong, though.
“I thought I led with my shoulder and hit him in the arm-pit, chest area,” Bell said. “We can't go below the waist and we can't go to the helmet — the area of where we can block on that type of block is getting smaller and smaller.”
Smith's head appeared to snap back at the point of contact, but it was unclear on video replays if Bell did indeed make contact above the shoulders.
The NCAA rulebook states that any contact with a player's head or neck area is illegal. And if the play is in question, it should be called a foul, according to the rulebook.
Coach Bo Pelini said he thought it was a “clean hit.”
The original call on the field was an illegal high hit and unnecessary roughness, according to a Big Ten spokesman. But the league office had no further comment on the play.
Bell doesn't plan to alter his approach, though he said he remains supportive of the sport's growing player-safety movement.
“When you're playing, you don't think, 'OK, slow down,' as you're running full speed on the field,” Bell said.
In Bell's mind, he either makes the block, or he avoids all contact.
“I could hit him and be criticized by people, that I play too rough and that it was a cheap shot — people that know me know I don't play like that,” Bell said. “Or I can not make that block and be chewed out in the weight room by my coaches.”
Bell did reach out three times to Smith. Once on the field right after the play. Another time after the game was over. And again through social media.
Bell said Smith held no hard feelings.
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“He said, 'It's fine. We're playing football,'” Bell said.
Ultimately, the hit had little impact on the 70-31 Badger blowout win.
It did clear the way for Turner to glide into the end zone for a 55-yard score. A flag erased that touchdown, but Taylor Martinez crossed the goal line six plays later.
If anything, junior offensive guard Spencer Long said, Bell's hustle and physicality in a 49-10 game revealed a bit of character that Long hopes defines this team.
“I love that because it just showed that we're going to fight until the clock hits zero,” Long said. “It doesn't matter what the score is. That's the way we've been all year.”
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