EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It's a time-honored tradition in the Big Ten that you win with defense, big tight ends and a bell cow at running back.
No. 13 Michigan State didn't have much more going for it than those three principles in Friday night's 17-13 victory against No. 24 Boise State. Except instead of just a bell cow, the Spartans had a Bell wow.
Le'Veon Bell has the power of a bull with better hooves -- and moves. He leapt, spun and battered his way to a performance worthy of early Heisman Trophy buzz. Workhorse? Michigan State's dazzling junior running back made other tailbacks look like lazy nags.
Bell carried the ball an astonishing 44 times for 210 yards and two scores in the opener, and caught six passes for 55 yards. In other words, he accounted for 265 yards on 50 touches. Boise State's entire offense totaled 206 yards on 56 plays.
"He's the perfect back for our style and our brand of football," Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell said. "We want to establish ourselves as the toughest team, and it's great to have a back like him willing to get hit and get yards after contact."
On a night when Michigan State continually hurt itself and showed its inexperience in the passing game, Boise State held the lead well into the fourth quarter despite being dominated in most statistical categories. But the Broncos, who broke in nine new defensive starters, simply had no way to answer the Bell.
At 244 pounds, Bell somehow manages to combine nimble footwork and agility with his power. He pulled off what has become one of his signature plays in the first half when he hurdled over Boise State safety Jeremy Ioane en route to a 31-yard gain.
"It seemed like his feet were at my head," said 6-foot-5 tight end Dion Sims. "You never know what to expect with Le'Veon."
The Spartans have grown accustomed to seeing Bell take to the air. But not everyone enjoys the view.
"My mom gets so mad when I do that every time," Bell said. "It's something I've been doing for a minute. It's just instinctive. A lot of guys go after my legs because I'm a bigger guy, and I know I've got the jumping ability to jump over somebody."
For most of the night, Michigan State couldn't get over the top of the Broncos, who showed the resiliency and toughness that led them to 73 wins in their previous 79 games. The Spartans' deep and talented defense was as good as advertised, allowing just 37 rushing yards, but Boise State was opportunistic.
Two first-half Maxwell interceptions led directly to points, including a 43-yard pick-six by an upright Ioane. Maxwell also threw a pick near the Boise State goal line late in the half when he missed Bennie Fowler for what could have been an easy touchdown. The three interceptions weren't all Maxwell's fault -- receiver Tony Lippett basically handed the ball to a defender as part of a difficult night for him -- but he made some poor decisions.
"It was not exactly how you dream the first half to go," said the redshirt junior, who sat behind Kirk Cousins for three years waiting for this chance.
A receiving corps missing the top three players from last season also showed its inexperience throughout the night, especially Lippett. And while the Spartans nearly doubled the Broncos' offensive output, they had trouble staying out of their own way.
Luckily, they had Bell and Sims, a junior who had a breakout night with seven catches for 65 yards. When Michigan State finally scored the go-ahead touchdown with 8:12 left, Bell and Sims touched the ball on seven of the nine plays during the drive. Sims, a mammoth 285-pounder who's as big a matchup problem for defenses as Bell, hauled in an 18-yard pass on third-and-6 to set up Bell's 5-yard touchdown run.
"They were the guys with the hot hands, so we wanted to go to them at the critical time," Maxwell said.
That one-two punch was enough to win a difficult opener, but that's probably not the way to the Big Ten championship. Some of the Spartans' defensive stars were disappointed in their effort -- "I was below average," defensive end William Gholston said. "We're not satisfied." However, the normally high-scoring Broncos basically managed just three points on offense. The defense figures to remain a constant throughout the season.
It will be up to Maxwell and the passing game to make this a complete team. Coach Mark Dantonio pulled Maxwell aside at halftime and told his quarterback not to doubt himself. Maxwell went 5-for-5 on the final two drives and avoided turnovers in the second half.
"There's going to be a learning curve here," Dantonio said. "Our guys grew up tonight."
Bell already has grown into a force. He carried the ball nine times while the Spartans wrung the clock out for the final 6:32. His stamina, especially in the first week of the season, was incredible, and his 44 carries were the fourth most in a game in school history. Sims said he's never seen Bell get tired in practice. But 50 touches per game is not exactly a sustainable pace.
"If that happens, then we're definitely going to test his durability," Maxwell said with a laugh. "But he's a guy who's going to say, 'OK, I'm up to the challenge.' I'm amazed every time I watch him run."