In a workhorse performance for the ages and with the nation watching, junior Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell carried the ball 44 times for 210 yards and two touchdowns and added six catches for 55 yards in Michigan State's hard-fought 17-13 victory over Boise State on Friday night.
All in all, Bell had 50 touches on 90 total offensive plays for the Spartans and 265 of their 461 yards from scrimmage. And on a night in which Michigan State's passing offense was a shambles and Boise State was doing just enough to stay ahead for most of the second half, Bell's performance was the only thing keeping Michigan State from being embarrassed in its season opener.
Le'Veon Bell isn't going to rack up 50 touches every week, obviously, and if it took him 44 rushes to get to 210 yards (even against a strong defense like Boise's) he's probably not going to be hitting 2,000 yards.
Nonetheless, what Bell did on Friday night was enough to put him first on the map for Heisman Trophy consideration. He won that game for Michigan State, and if the performance of the passing game is any indication for how the rest of the season will go, the Spartans will need Bell to win a lot of games single-handedly in 2012.
Even the things that won't show up on the stat sheet looked good for Bell. Early on in the game, the 245-pound tailback leapt over a defender in the middle of a 23-yard gain. He constantly showed uncommon patience for a back of his size and strength and let running lanes open up before using them for the type of three- or four-yard gains that peppered his stat sheet and wore down the Boise defense over the course of the game.
And on a crucial 3rd-and-6 on the Boise State 25 with a 13-10 deficit staring the Spartans in the face, Bell came across on pass protection and stood up a blitzer, giving Andrew Maxwell the time and space to find TE Dion Sims (seven catches, 65 yards, three third-down conversions) for an 18-yard gain and a first down at the Boise State seven-yard line. Two plays later, Bell was carrying tacklers into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
Well, that one showed up in the stat sheet, anyway.
Oddly enough, the play that probably saved the entire game for Michigan State didn't result in any points—either on the play itself or on the drive eventually—but it was an immensely important play, nonetheless. Michigan State faced 3rd-and-16 on its own four-yard line, and the formerly haywire crowd was flat-lining. Bell took a handoff on what looked like a safe play to just get to fourth down, bounced off tacklers, found a seam on the other side of the field and took the ball 35 yards for a first down.
That drive ended with Tony Lippett fumbling away a long pass inside the Boise State red zone, but that swing of momentum was absolutely crucial when it looked as if the Broncos were finally going to take control of the game. And it was a play that it's hard imagining anybody but Bell making, with his combination of strength, patience, athleticism and vision.
Finally, after Michigan State got the ball back on its own 42 with 6:32 to play, the Spartans needed to bleed the clock, and that meant it was Le'Veon Bell time. And sure enough, Bell put together nine rushes for 39 yards on that drive—not one for a loss—and Boise State never touched the ball again, with the Spartans kneeling on the ball inside the five-yard line to end the game.
Boise State knew what was coming. The Broncos knew it was going to be all Le'Veon Bell. And they couldn't stop him.
Things should get slightly easier for Bell next week as he looks to strengthen his numbers; Michigan State heads to Central Michigan on Sept. 8, and the Chippewas just got done giving up 188 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 42 carries to Southeast Missouri State in a 38-27 win. Michigan State is probably going to improve on those numbers substantially, and if that's the case, then only Mark Dantonio's sense of mercy is going to limit Bell's production next week.
But for now, let us hail Le'Veon Bell, who did what so many teams have failed to do over the past several years: He single-handedly wore down and broke Boise State's vaunted defense. And if he keeps up that level of dominance against the legions of stout defenses the Spartans will face in the Big Ten this year, a trip to the Downtown Athletic Club should be waiting for him in December.