Wells could hold key against Michigan

Published 1:03 pm Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Chris ‘‘Beanie’’ Wells will soon decide whether he wants to return for his senior season at Ohio State or make himself available for the NFL draft.

If he had a say in the matter, Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez would like the 6-foot-1, 237-pound Wells to turn pro by Saturday.

‘‘Maybe the biggest difference between Beanie and some of the other backs we’ve faced — and we’ve faced good ones — is just his size,’’ Rodriguez said this week during preparations for Saturday’s rivalry game between the Wolverines and Buckeyes. ‘‘He’s got the speed, but he’s such a big, physical player. Lot of times he just stiff arms guys and breaks out of tackles and he can outrun you. You can’t just go up and wrap your arms around him. You’ve got to actually tackle him.’’

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Wells is perhaps the most important figure in the 105th meeting of the old rivals. With a freshman, Terrelle Pryor, starting at quarterback for the 10th-ranked Buckeyes, it’s unlikely that conservative coach Jim Tressel will take many chances. That means Wells will be likely called upon often against a Wolverines defense surrendering 128 yards a game on the ground.

Tressel said Wells has earned that responsibility.

‘‘You don’t get knighted as a guy that’s going to play good in that (big) game,’’ he said. ‘‘You have to go do it against good people.’’

Wells certainly has. He’s a big-game hunter — and there’s nothing bigger in these parts than Michigan vs. Ohio State.

Over his past two seasons as a starter, in nine games against ranked teams he has rushed for 1,118 yards, averaged 5.6 yards a carry and scored nine times. A year ago against No. 23 Michigan on a wet track, he went for 222 yards on 39 carries and scored both touchdowns in a 14-3 victory. That was a career-high in rushes and the 222 yards is the most by a Buckeye against Michigan.

Wells was not made available to reporters this week.

But Wells recently addressed his feelings about the scarlet-letter days on the Ohio State schedule.

‘‘I just love playing in big games,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s something that I guess you could say that I’m made for. I like to think that I’m made to play on the big stage.’’

His running mate in the backfield, fullback Brandon Smith, said there’s just something about the best teams that bring out the best in Wells.

‘‘He’s fired up whenever he gets the ball in his hands,’’ Smith said. ‘‘I think his motto is, ’Great players make great plays in big games.’ I’m sure that’s in the back of his head somewhere.’’

It’s not just carrying the ball, either. Wells’ personality grows with a tougher opponent, too.

‘‘When I’m out there, I feel as if I bring a presence to the field and a sense of energy to the team,’’ he said.

Wells, who missed three games earlier in the season with a foot injury, piled up 143 yards on 24 carries in last week’s 30-20 win at Illinois. Perhaps the highlight-reel play of the season for the Buckeyes took place when Wells vaulted Illinois safety Donsay Hardeman — it appeared he was a good 4 feet off the ground as the mystified defender disappeared under him, grabbing at air — on a 25-yard run.

The good-natured Wells is a happy-go-lucky kid who everyone on the team seems to like. Smith said off the field Wells is a ‘‘goofball’’ — joking with upper- and underclassmen alike.

At the same time, his teammates know that the impending decision on a pro career — keep in mind, he’s one of 11 kids — is weighing on him.

‘‘It will come down to what he wants in his heart,’’ said cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, who could have gone in the first round of the draft last year but elected to return for his senior season. ‘‘He could easily go to the NFL next year. He’s played well enough in college to do it.’’

Especially in the biggest games.