Spartans ground game gets green light

Michigan State achieved nearly perfect offensive balance in 2009 with 419 rushes and 423 passes.

So why did the Spartans seem so lopsided?

Nearly two-thirds of Michigan State's total yards (3,502 out of 5,281, 66.3 percent) and touchdowns scored (28 of 44, 63.6 percent) came through the air. The Spartans boasted the Big Ten's No. 2 pass offense but finished a middling sixth in rushing average.

Something didn't feel right, especially for a team coached by Mark Dantonio, a disciple of Jim Tressel and Nick Saban.

When freshman running back Le'Veon Bell enrolled early this past winter, Dantonio had a message for him.

"He basically said he wanted to run the ball this year," Bell said. "He wanted to get back to the 'Pound Green Pound.'"

That was the motto Dantonio espoused after becoming Spartans coach. Michigan State finished 25th nationally in rushing in his first season as head coach in 2007. The following year, running back Javon Ringer earned All-America honors after finishing fourth nationally in rushing (1,637 yards) and leading the nation in carries (390).

Michigan State's ground game took a step back last fall, in part because its best backs, Larry Caper and Edwin Baker, were true freshmen. But things are changing so far this season.

"I knew we had some very capable running backs," Dantonio said. "I also knew we needed to assert ourselves a little bit more in the running game than we did last year. We're doing that."

Through two games, Michigan State ranks second in the Big Ten and 11th nationally in rushing average (261 ypg), boasting a whopping 7.8 yards-per-carry average and six touchdowns. More impressive is the fact that the Spartans are doing it without Caper, who started five games last season but has sat out the first two contests with a hand injury.

Baker and Bell both rank among the Big Ten's top eight rushers. Baker, who didn't eclipse 100 yards in any game as a freshman, already has two 100-yard yard performances this fall and ranks fifth nationally in rushing average (150 ypg).

More good news should come Saturday night, as Caper likely will make his season debut against Notre Dame (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). The Spartans will be able to spread out the carries and keep their backs fresh.

"That was our main goal, to establish a run game," Baker said. "Last year, we didn't establish that. We took it upon ourselves -- me, Larry and Le'Veon -- and we said, 'We're going to make this run game a big deal.'"

Baker admitted to being overwhelmed last season.

After appearing in the opener against Montana State, he experienced soreness in his surgically repaired knee and sat out the next five games. Michigan State considered redshirting Baker, but he returned to the field in October.

When he did, his head was swimming.

"I was thinking a lot, thinking about my assignment too much, thinking, ‘Dang, am I really supposed to do this?’" Baker recalled. "I had a lot of emotions and a lot of things going around me, from my injury, then me [possibly] getting redshirted.

"Now I'm out here, I'm 100 percent, I'm free-minded. I feel great."

He's playing great, too. Baker's goal is to produce at least one big play per game, and he achieved it last week with an 80-yard touchdown run against Florida Atlantic.

Bell also recorded his first breakaway run, a 75-yarder in the opener against Western Michigan. But at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Bell understands his primary role.

"I'm a bigger guy," Bell said. "I can be used in short-down situations. I can catch the ball out of the backfield. I can get a lot of the tough yardage. I think I'm a very patient runner, and I'm a great pass protector."

Bell has a similar makeup to the 5-11, 220-pound Caper, while Baker, at 5-9 and 208 pounds, draws more comparisons to Ringer in both body type and running style.

Dantonio provides the scouting report for each back.

Baker: "Extremely powerful, quick, explosive in the hole, great balance."

Bell: "Power, vision, ability to hit a hole square, runs through tackles."

Caper: "A power-type runner, sort of a slashing-type runner and great speed, great athlete."

"They all complement each other," Dantonio said.

After two fairly easy wins, Michigan State needs a boost from its backs Saturday night as the competition gets tougher. Notre Dame held Purdue to 102 rush yards in a Sept. 4 victory, but the Irish had no answer for Michigan's Denard Robinson (258 rush yards) last week.

Baker saw snippets of the Michigan-Notre Dame game, and while he'll never heap too much praise on a Wolverine, he liked what he saw.

"That's a key thing that [Robinson] was running on them," Baker said. "That shows me that I can run on them, and so can our other running backs. We're going to take that to our advantage.”