Notre Dame vs. Michigan State: Is It All on LeVeon Bell to Carry Sparty to a W?

Adam JacobiBig Ten Football Lead WriterSeptember 11, 2012

Sep 8, 2012; Mt. Pleasant, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back Le'Veon Bell (24) rushes for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Central Michigan Chippewas at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US Presswire

The Big Ten's marquee matchup of Week 3 is ABC's 8:00 p.m. prime-time game between Notre Dame and host Michigan State. Granted, "marquee matchup" isn't saying much considering the rest of the conference slate, but this could well be the best non-conference game of the season for the Big Ten (Michigan-Alabama was a lot of things, but "good" flew out the window never to return when it was 31-0 Bama in the first half).

Andrew Maxwell put together a decent passing performance against Central Michigan in Week 2. Yes, 20-of-31 for 275 yards and two touchdowns (and no interceptions!) is good and well. It certainly beats the mess the MSU passing game put forth against Boise State. But don't be fooled—come Saturday, this will be LeVeon Bell's offense to dominate once again.

We're not likely to see another 50-touch performance from LeVeon Bell. That's an insane workload, and it certainly necessitated the 18-rush effort Dantonio solicited from his big back in Week 2. And yet Bell's still tied for the national lead at 69 touches with Stefphon Jefferson of Nevada.

Suffice it to say, don't expect Bell to stop at 18 rushes this week. Notre Dame should expect a big dose of the running game on Saturday, and for as fine as Larry Caper is in spot situations, this is going to be another showcase game for Bell first and foremost.

Or, more precisely, last and foremost. In the decisive fourth quarter of the Boise State game, LeVeon Bell touched the ball on 14 of 22 plays from scrimmage, not counting the two kneel-downs at the end of the game.

On those 14 touches, he was never held to a loss, gained positive yardage on 13 and gained at least three yards on 11—crucial when a team is in the process of putting away its opponent late and creating manageable down-and-distance situations against an opponent who's desperate to get the ball back.

Bell also registered 14 touches in the first quarter, and it's hardly a coincidence that the Spartans scored all their points in those first and fourth quarters. Bell is the workhorse. He doesn't just keep drives alive, he makes them go in the first place. Notre Dame needs to be ready to handle that.

The Notre Dame rush defense should prove a worthy adversary. The Irish held Purdue's ground game to 90 yards on 30 carries, and that includes just 56 yards on 16 carries for tailbacks Akeem Shavers and Akeem Hunt. Navy, meanwhile, struggled mightily on the ground in Week 1, racking up just 149 yards rushing on 40 carries—an anemic output for such a ground-based team.

The secret to the Notre Dame 3-4 is the gap discipline, which starts with 1-technique nose guard Louis Nix III, a mountain of a man who's listed at 6'3" and 326 pounds and could easily be heavier. With Nix on point and generally impossible to beat one-on-one by a center (a tough, tough assignment even for MSU's talented sophomore Travis Jackson), Notre Dame's able to maintain its gap discipline and let its linebackers flow to the ball unimpeded.

Expect to see star Manti Te'o be the primary (though by no means "only," in case you don't know how defense works) man tasked with staying free and putting a hat on Bell when Michigan's working the ground game.

Bell's certainly not going to be able to just run away from Te'o or any of Notre Dame's other talented linebackers, but if Michigan State can work a numbers mismatch with some creative blocking at and around the point of attack, Bell should be able to put up some yardage—especially falling forward, which a 245-pound back ought to be doing.

Make no mistake, this matchup is going to look like a slog for most of the game, with guys just running into each other and falling over and not much open-field maneuvering. But keep an eye on where that point of attack is in relation to the line of scrimmage, if Michigan State's pushing it forward or Notre Dame's defensive line is forcing a stalemate and keeping its linebackers free.

If the Spartans are able to start moving the line forward by the start of the fourth quarter, Notre Dame's defense should be in for a heavy dose of LeVeon Bell down the stretch—and they can ask Boise State's battered front seven how that feels.