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IOWA CITY, Iowa They weren't into numbers with Le'Veon Bell. The man is third in the nation in carries. He averages more than 28 a game.
Le'Veon Bell is going to get his.
What the Hawkeyes don't want is to be "hurdled." If you look at Bell, a 6-2, 244-pound running back, you know he has the obvious capacity to run through a tackle. What might surprise you is his athleticism. Three times in games this season Bell has run into the open field, stared a defender in the face and hurdled him.
Last week against Indiana, Bell cleared Hoosiers defensive back Kenny Mullen. Against Notre Dame, Bell climbed the ladder and skied over safety Zeke Motta, who stands 6-2. On national TV in the Spartans' season opener against Boise State, Bell cleared safety Jeremy Ioane with plenty of room to spare.
Nope, no one on the Iowa defense wants any part of that. No one wants to be GIF'd, YouTube'd or any other short-highlight delivery system on the internet.
"Just keep your eyes up," linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. "Try to put your body on his body. Don't try to go for the kill shot. Just wrap him up and keep your eyes up. If you're one-on-one with him, just try to get him to the ground however you can."
Bell is going to get his. That's just the way Michigan State (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) is built as it goes into this weekend's Legends Division matchup with Iowa (3-2, 1-0).
Bell's 171 carries are No. 3 in the country and 27 more than No. 2 in the Big Ten (Wisconsin's Montee Ball at 144). Bell's 28.5 carries a game lead the Big Ten and are No. 3 in the nation. Bell carried 37 times in the Spartans' victory over Indiana last week. For an Iowa back to top that, you have to go back to Albert Young's 38-carry, 202-yard performance at Northwestern in 2005.
Bell's not just a carries-eater. His 776 yards is tops in the Big Ten, ahead of spread QBs Denard Robinson and Ohio State's Braxton Miller.
His production has allowed Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell, first-year starter, grow to the point where he could lead last week's comeback against Indiana, which carried a 17-point lead in the first half. True freshman wide receiver Aaron Burbridge also emerged with eight catches for 134 yards.
Bell's 44-carry effort against Boise State tied him for fourth for attempts in a game for Michigan State.
"He's a very big guy and a powerful guy," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "You've seen him hurdle guys, pretty impressive for any back, but you think about a guy with his size, to have that athleticism, he's a real challenge. If you break down at all and somebody misses a gap, he can really hurt you."
This is Bell's first season as "the guy" in the Spartans' backfield. Last season in MSU's 37-21 victory over Iowa, he had 112 yards and a TD on 20 carries. In 2010, when the junior was basically just beginning, he had six carries for 12 yards.
A 244-pound back who can go all Air Jordan on you will call for superior technique on Iowa's part. The first part of that is head up. You could tell that was a point of emphasis this week.
"You have to keep your eyes up," defensive end Dominic Alvis said. "You'll see the guys he hurdles ducking their heads. Keep your eyes up, wrap up and drive your legs. He's a big dude, but I think we can bring him down."
Google "Le'Veon Bell" with "hurdle" and you'll find all three hurdle highlights from this season, among others.
"You've got to try to contain him and don't allow him any space," cornerback Micah Hyde said. "If he gets outside and gets some room, he's going to make something happen. You have to see what you're hitting, keep your chest up and keep moving. He's a big guy, you definitely have to use your legs to tackle him."
A football game is rarely an easy pinpoint to what will or won't dictate an outcome, but during Mark Dantonio's six seasons as Michigan State's head coach, the Spartans are 36-8 when outrushing an opponent and 11-16 when getting outrushed. In the Spartans' two losses (Notre Dame and Ohio State), they've rushed for 84 yards on 47 carries, a 1.8-yard average.
There's more than just not being in highlight reel if the Hawkeyes keep Bell grounded. Still, no one wants any part of that hurdle deal.
"Other than a guy catching a touchdown pass on you, getting hurdled has to be the worst," Hyde said. "It's a terrible feeling. You just get up and go, 'Wow, what just happened? Where did the guy go.' Definitely a horrible feeling."