Courtesy of MCT
Whether Michigan State junior running back Le’Veon Bell will be a contender for this year’s Heisman Trophy remains to be seen, but Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer has already compared Bell to a former Wisconsin running back who won the award in 1999.
“(Bell) reminds me of Ron Dayne, even a little more athletic,” Meyer said. “Extremely strong, powerful guy, and times up his blocks very well, and runs through tackles, and then we see the athleticism that usually people that size don’t have.”
Bell, a native of Columbus who played high school football at Groveport Madison High School, will be starting at running back for the No. 20 Spartans when they play his hometown No. 14 Buckeyes on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in East Lansing, Mich.
OSU’s defense is tied 34th nationally in rushing defense with 117.5 yards allowed per game, but it could be facing its toughest test on Saturday in Bell.
Bell, a 6-foot-2, 244-pound running back, ranks second among all Football Bowl Subdivision running backs with 610 rushing yards through his first four games of the season, and is coming off of a career-best 253-yard rushing game in a victory against Eastern Michigan last Saturday.
OSU co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers said the skill set that has made Bell so productive this season.
“He’s a patient runner. He does a nice job of setting up blocks within their offense in the power game, and I think he does a nice job of cutting back,” Withers said. “He knows where the soft spots in the defense (are), he knows when to take it on the edge. He does a nice job with a stiff arm out on the edge. He will lower his shoulder inside. He’s built for an I-back inside runner, and I think it fits what they’re trying to do offensively.”
The worst day for OSU’s rushing defense thus far this year came on Sept. 15 versus California, which ran for 224 yards against the Buckeyes, 160 yards of which came from sophomore Brendan Bigelow on just four carries.
Meyer said the Buckeyes cannot allow Bell, who has already gone for more than 200 yards in a single game twice this season, to do that again on Saturday.
“If it turns into a 200-yard rushing day,” Meyer said, “then we’re going to lose the game.”
Withers explained what the OSU defense must do to keep Bell’s rushing yards in check.
“We’re going to have to make sure we keep him sideways and not let him go north and south,” Withers said.
OSU redshirt senior safety Orhian Johnson said that the key to tackling Bell, considering his combination of size and athleticism, is to “get him before he gets to you.”
“You definitely want to get to him before he gets started because he’s real top-heavy, so you know he’s going to run downfield,” Johnson said. “He’s got good feet, so you just can’t chop at him, but you just got to make sure you’re going to get up there, you’re going to wrap him up.”
As a sophomore in last year’s matchup with the Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium, Bell only ran for 50 yards on 14 carries. At that point, however, Bell had only run for 217 yards through his first four games of the season, and was splitting carries with then-junior running back Edwin Baker.
This season, with Baker having moved on to the NFL, Bell has become the Spartans’ workhorse at running back. Bell already has 117 carries this season, with no other running back having more than 15 attempts through the first four games.
MSU coach Mark Dantonio said during the Spartans’ weekly press conference on Tuesday that Bell has progressed as a running back since last year’s matchup with the Buckeyes.
“Where (Le’Veon’s) grown is as a complete football player,” Dantonio said. “He’s always been very, very good. But he’s gotten bigger, stronger.”
OSU senior fullback Zach Boren, who said he tackled Bell in high school when he was playing on both sides of the ball for Pickerington High School Central, said Bell has “stayed true to himself from high school to college.”
“In high school, they would feed him the ball 30 to 40 times a game, and that’s the same at Michigan State,” Boren said. “He’s a great player, he’s a powerful runner.”
In addition to lining up at running back, Bell has also returned three punts for a total of 18 yards for the Spartans this season. Meyer said the fact that Bell has been used as a punt returner is a testament to his athleticism.
“He might be the biggest punt returner in the history of college football,” Meyer said with a laugh.