Dec. 27, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
TAMPA, Fla. - It's a good thing the value of Michigan State's rushing attack is judged by what it does on grass, natural and artificial, and not paper.
Otherwise, you could get the impression it's not very good, and Spartan sophomore running back Le'Veon Bell swears that nothing could be further from the truth.
The evidence - the Spartans are just 0.1 yards per game away from being last in the Big Ten - isn't supported by the eyeball test, according to Bell.
"We might not rush for 300 or 400 yards as a team, but our run game is efficient," Bell said after Tuesday's Outback Bowl practice at Jesuit High School. "We make our second and third downs manageable. Rather than being in a lot of second- and third-and-long situations, our run game really helps us."
Bell's numbers support that contention.
He is 100 yards away from the 1,000-yard mark going into Monday's game against Georgia. Although Bell is ninth in the Big Ten in rushing with 69.2 yards per game on 165 attempts, his healthy 5.5 yards per carry is fourth among the Top-10 rushers.
Furthermore, Edwin Baker, who rushed for 1,201 yards last season, has contributed 655 yards on 164 carries.
Plus, Bell pointed out, as the offensive line has evolved into a cohesive unit after being hampered by injuries and inexperience early in the season, the rushing attack has steadily improved. The Spartans ran for 190 yards, their third-best output of the season, in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin, which boasts the league's No. 4 rushing defense.
"We are pretty much a balanced offense," Bell said. "Our run game helps our pass game, and our pass game helps the run."
While conventional wisdom suggests that most successful balanced attacks have a dominant run aspect, MSU has turned it around somewhat with Kirk Cousins passing the ball and B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and even Bell catching it.
The Spartans are second in the Big Ten in passing offense with 247.5 yards per game and are tied for the second-most touchdown passes with 25.
Bell is third on the team in receiving with 30 catches for 228 yards.
"This year, I really got a chance to show I'm really not just a situational back, like on short yardage, and I can play on every down," he said. "I like showing I can catch the ball and block and do other things that can help our team win rather than just run the ball."
Nevertheless, he's been most effective after taking a handoff or a pitch. His signature move once he gets past the line of scrimmage is The Spin.
Lorenzo White was the best cutback runner in MSU history, Tico Duckett had blinding straightaway speed, T.J. Duckett was a bruising power-runner, few had a finishing burst that could match Blake Ezor's, Javon Ringer was unparalleled when fighting for hard yards and Eric "The Flea" Allen had all the moves, but it's safe to say no former Spartan spun like Bell does.
On his first of 15 carries for 96 yards against Minnesota, Bell spun to avoid a tackler and then, after a step or two, twirled in the opposite direction to avoid another.
"It's kind of instinctive," Bell said. "I don't plan for it or anything. I just go out there and run. I actually like cutting in front of them more, but sometimes they'll be a little behind me and I've got to spin. It just happens."
Bell has his sights set on becoming MSU's fourth 1,000-yard rusher in five seasons but knows running backs coach Brad Salem will stick with the hot back until he cools off.
"It's a dream just to play Big Ten (football) let alone rush for 1,000 yards, so that'd be a great accomplishment for me and a big step from last season," said Bell, who rushed for 605 yards and eight touchdowns on 107 freshman carries. "You just have to go out there and run hard. The only thing you can control is yourself, so go out there and let it come. If it comes, it comes. If it doesn't, it's just not your day."
Bell, who has run for 11 touchdowns, will get every opportunity to become the seventh Big Ten back to reach that milestone this season.
"It's a neat opportunity for him, with Edwin doing it last year," Salem said. "I think the mind-set of our team is we want to win a bowl game and that's been the mind-set of our position group.
"When you look at carries, we've split them right down the middle and not one guy has been the one to get the ball all the time. But that's sort of the unselfish attitude of those guys, and kind of the team aspect. They want to do whatever they can to help us be successful."
NOTES & QUOTES: Junior running back Larry Caper, who has been sidelined since injuring his knee against Indiana in the 11th game, could re-emerge on offense.
"He's done well the last couple weeks," Salem said. "He fought through it really all the way through the championship game, and so hopefully we've got him back and obviously have some fresh running backs.
"It helps us on third downs having a guy with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and also pass protection. Le'Veon (Bell) has kind of fit in that role and does a very good job doing that part of the offense. It gives us two guys who are very capable."
With only one ball to share among three ballcarriers and a stable of talented receivers, Salem said one of his biggest challenges is to get Bell, Baker and Caper enough touches.
"They're all competitive people and I tell every one of them, `You should want the ball every play and you should want to be in there every play,'" Salem said. "Somebody's going to be mad at me after each game; I understand that. But, it's neat to see them take joy in the success of the other players. You don't see that everywhere."
Linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Mike Tressel doesn't expect any dropoff with red-shirt sophomore Steve Moore doing the long snapping in place of freshman Matt Giampapa, who is serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules.
Moore hasn't hiked the ball in a game since the non-conference portion of the season.
"With the punt team, one of the primary reasons Giampapa won the job was protection," Tressel said. "But with the style of punt we're doing right now there's not much protection required out of the center, so Steve should be able to step in.
"He's been on the team longer so the guys know him. I don't think there's any issues in that regard so he should be fine - just snap the ball, run down the field, let's go."