Coming into 2011, Michigan State fans expected the Spartans to have a powerful running attack. They expected spirited efforts every game led by a Doak Walker Award candidate. They expected this tailback to lead the team in rushing in almost every game as well as lead the team in rushing touchdowns. Finally, they expected the ball to be in this back’s hands in the fourth quarter to gain tough yards and seal victories throughout the rigors of Big Ten play.
They just expected that running back to be Edwin Baker.
Instead, sophomore Le’Veon Bell has been quite possibly the biggest surprise of the season for the Spartans. His powerful, yet agile running style has propelled him to Michigan State stardom. He consistently picks up tough yards with a combination of strong running between the tackles and nimble moves you wouldn't expect from a 240-pound back. His patented spin move typically leaves defenders grasping at nothing but the crisp Midwestern air.
Bell’s ascent to notoriety has not come at Baker’s expense, as the previous featured tailback has had an ample opportunity. Baker leads the team in carries with 130 (to Bell’s 122), but his production has tapered off this season. As a sophomore, Baker averaged 5.8 yards a carry and found the end zone 13 times. However, in his junior season, Baker has seen his average drop to 4.2 yards per carry and has only found pay dirt twice.
Although Kirk Cousins is an extremely talented quarterback, it is the general consensus that Cousins is more effective when asked to merely manage a game and not dominate it (case in point, the Notre Dame game). In order to give your quarterback that opportunity, a solid running game is a must. Le’Veon has certainly answered the bell where Baker has come up short.
Bell has rushed for 640 yards on 122 carries this season, or a 5.25 yards per carry clip. His nine rushing touchdowns are third most in the Big Ten among running backs. More impressive yet is Bell’s knack for finding the end zone consistently. He scores a touchdown on one of every 13.6 carries, second best in the Big Ten and 17th best among all backs in the nation.
Just imagine the type of damage Bell could do with the lion’s share of the carries, like a Rex Burkhead of Nebraska who has 212 on the season.
Despite having fewer carries than Baker, Bell has led the Spartans in rushing in all but one of their games. He has rushed for 87 yards or more in three of the Spartans’ last four games. His performance at Iowa last week paved the way for the Spartans first victory in Iowa City in well over a decade.
Michigan State now has a firm hold on the Legends Division in the Big Ten. With two more wins against subpar opponents, the Spartans will find themselves in the Big Ten Championship Game with a Rose Bowl berth on the line, something very few fans and even fewer national experts believed possible at the start of the season.
Spartan fans can give a great deal of credit to Le’Veon Bell, the team’s true Doak Walker Award candidate, for that.