Nov. 25, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
Michigan State is still in pursuit of its best game of the season, but the Spartans are quantum leap closer thanks in large part to a long series of steps taken running back Le'Veon Bell.
And because of a rambunctious defensive effort that produced a season-high four turnovers along with the best special teams production of the year in Saturday's 26-10 victory at Minnesota, MSU will get one more chance to back up its claim that a 6-6 record doesn't come close to illustrating just how good this team is.
The Spartans tried to make a compelling case on their behalf by saying they were 13 points from being 10-1, and an inch here or there from beating Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern.
But the only truth anybody cares about is spelled with just two letters: W and L.
So until Michigan State put up, it wasn't going to be taken seriously.
And in the 12th, and final, game of the regular season, the words finally rang true - as clear as a Bell, so to speak.
"Even though we still didn't play the best that we could have, we still played well enough to win in a good fashion," the junior running back said.
Bell trampled the Golden Gopher defense for a career-best 266 yards and the win-sealing touchdown on 35 carries. It was the sixth-best single-game performance by a Spartans running back in school history and it couldn't have come at a better time.
Bell compensated for a passing attack that sputtered in the sub-freezing temperatures at TCF Bank Stadium with 124 rushing yards by halftime against a defense configured to stop him first and foremost.
To put his performance in perspective, Minnesota finished the game with 96 total yards, including just 4 on the ground.
"This was just a total team effort," said Bell. "The offensive line did a great job opening holes and staying on their blocks, which allowed me to worry about the linebackers and the safeties. And the receivers did a great job of picking up safeties.
"The game really slowed down for me and things became a lot easier. We had a nice little rhythm going after the first quarter. Yeah, I felt like I was in a zone."
The victory was necessary to extend MSU's unprecedented string of bowl appearances to a sixth season under head coach Mark Dantonio, who also recorded his 50th career win at the Spartan helm.
It appears likely that the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, which has the fifth pick among the eight Big Ten-affiliated postseason games after the Rose, Capital One, Outback and Gator, will pit the Spartans, who are 3-5 in conference play, against a Big 12 opponent on Dec. 29 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.
Purdue (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) and Minnesota (6-6, 2-6) are the Big Ten's other bowl-eligible teams and the Meineke Car Care Bowl (Dec. 28 at Houston) and the TicketCity Bowl (Jan. 1 at Dallas) have the sixth and seventh picks, respectively. The Little Caesars Bowl (Dec. 26 at Detroit) has the eighth pick, but the Big Ten has only seven bowl-eligible teams.
"I could see it in guys' eyes before the game during warmups," Bell said. "It was cold, but you could tell these guys wanted to win and they showed it from the first play to the last one.
"It feels great to become bowl eligible. We didn't want to be the first team in Coach D's era to not accomplish a bowl game so everybody did everything in their hearts to win this game. Now, we're going to go to the bowl game and keep this trend going."
Bell fell just 3 yards shy of moving past Clinton Jones, who had 268 yards against Purdue in 1966, and into fifth place on MSU's single-game rushing list. He watched from the sidelines as backups Nick Hill and Larry Caper picked up 29 more yards on the last three running-back carries, and even though those yards would have moved him all the way up to second place, he didn't mind seeing them go to his teammates.
"At the time, I didn't even know how many yards I had, so I wasn't worried about that," Bell said. "When they pulled me, they pulled me and I was done for the day. I was good. I understand we've got other guys who deserve carries, too. So I wasn't disappointed."
Besides, with 1,648 yards on the season, Bell moved into second-place ahead of All-American Javon Ringer (1,637 in 2008) on MSU's single-season list.
"I thought he had his best day this year in terms of running through people and running around people," Dantonio said. "He broke some big plays and was tough to tackle. We just continued to pound it, but you can do that when your defense is playing well. Special teams carried us too."
After MSU took an early 3-0 lead on a 48-yard Dan Conroy field goal, Bell's 26-yard run a few minutes later set up a 42-yard try, but Conroy missed. Bell picked up Conroy by matching his season-long with a 40-yard sprint and Conroy's 43-yarder cut Minnesota's lead to 7-6.
Bell rushed for all 49 of Michigan State's third-quarter-opening drive, and Conroy booted another 43-yarder that increased the Spartans' lead to 16-7. Bell made up for his only mistake, a third-quarter fumble recovered by teammate Aaron Burbridge after a 13-yard gain, by personally putting the game out of reach in the fourth quarter.
His 8-yard touchdown run was the last of nine for 53 yards during the 11-play, 57-yard possession that accounted for the final score.
The way Bell gashed the Gophers for big gains were a sight to behold from senior right guard Chris McDonald's vantage point.
"Watching him running from behind just shows what kind of character he has because he knows we did our job and he's going to do whatever it takes to get as much yardage as possible," McDonald said. "We came in together knowing they were going to stack the box with the safeties and we needed Le'Veon to have a fantastic day. So, the O-line knew we needed to step up and block very well and I think we did that.
"But, Le'Veon made us look good. Yeah, we blocked but he was phenomenal. You have to be a special back to do the things he does. We felt like if we just blocked the main guys and let Le'Veon get through and go one-on-one with a safety, we were going to bet on Le'Veon Bell."
McDonald has been saying for weeks that it was just a matter of time until the Spartans put everything together. He said this game is what "together" looks like.
"This is a big win," McDonald said. "It's a program win. Yeah, we're 6-6 right now but that looks a whole lot better than 5-7 and now we have an opportunity to go 7-6, and I think we will do that.
"Every game that we've lost has been a close game. So we still believe we're a good football team, and I think the rest of the nation knows that now."