So how did the Spartans escape Friday with a 17-13 win? The short answer is tailback Le'Veon Bell, who bulldozed, sidestepped and hurdled Boise State for 210 rushing yards on 44 carries, 55 receiving yards on six catches and two touchdowns. "He has a lot to carry on his back," tight end Dion Sims said of Bell. So what does it say about Michigan State's offense that in spite of Bell's brilliance, it couldn't crack 20 points against a defense that broke in nine new starters? Very little, actually.
Michigan State dominated Boise State everywhere except the scoreboard. The Spartans allowed the Broncos to hang around because of a series of turnovers that probably don't happen after a few new contributors gain more experience. Consider the mistakes that led to Boise State's first 10 points. Late in the first quarter, with the Spartans up 7-0 and driving, first-time starter Andrew Maxwell threw a perfect pass across the middle to Tony Lippett, who juggled the ball long enough for it to fall into the arms of Boise State cornerback Jamar Taylor. If Lippett snags that pass, the Spartans probably come away with a field goal or a touchdown. Instead, Taylor's return set up a Boise State field goal. (Lippett, who also fumbled in the third quarter following a 35-yard gain that probably would have led to another Michigan State score, had a night to forget.) In the second quarter, Maxwell had a pass deflected by Michigan State back Larry Caper. The ball landed in the arms of Broncos safety Jeremy Ioane, who erased the shame of getting hurdled by Bell by returning the pick 43 yards for a touchdown.
Take away those three mistakes mentioned in the above paragraph, and the final score is probably something closer to 27-3. Of course, you can't take those errors away. Nor would Maxwell want them taken away. Those gaffes -- especially in the light of a win -- are teachable moments. "Mistakes are going to happen," said Maxwell, who completed 22-of-38 passes for 248 yards with three interceptions. "Those are our growing pains. It's a game of inches and an inch either way, those plays can be completely different."
Those issues must be corrected before Big Ten play begins because Michigan State will not survive against Ohio State, Michigan or Wisconsin making so many mistakes. "You can't turn the ball over four times and expect to win against a good team," Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said. "Yet somehow we did it."
It was a testament to Boise State's coaching acumen that the Broncos capitalized on those Michigan State errors and hung around the entire night. The Broncos were due for a dip after losing nine defensive starters and quarterback Kellen Moore, the winner of 50 games in four years as a starter. Chris Petersen and his staff had their team ready, and after first-time starting quarterback Joe Southwick weathered Michigan State's initial pass-rush salvo, he played like a veteran. The Broncos simply weren't athletic enough to hang with the Spartans, who smothered Boise State's offense to the tune of 1.5 yards per carry. Perhaps the most telling moment came in the fourth quarter, when 222-pound Broncos defensive end Samuel Ukwuachu hung on for dear life and dragged down the 244-pound Bell after a five-yard gain. When their shifty, dynamic back outweighs your defensive end by 22 pounds, you are at a severe athletic disadvantage.
Bell will put a lot of teams at a similar disadvantage. "He's an animal," Michigan State defensive end Will Gholston said. "The jump when he hurdled that guy? He does that at practice." Bell's hurdle of Ioane on a 23-yard first-quarter gain unfolded directly in front of Sims. "It seemed like his feet were at my head," said the 6-foot-5 Sims. The hurdle will make all the highlight reels, but two other plays deserve equal billing.
With Michigan State facing third-and-16 from its own four-yard line, Bell took a handoff and got bottled up near the line of scrimmage. Then he spun away from a pack of defenders, ran inside a great block from Maxwell and rumbled for 35 yards. Michigan State didn't score on the drive, but Bell's run kept them from punting out of their own end zone and either getting the kick blocked or setting up Boise State with premium field position.
The other highlight came on the Spartans' drive for the winning touchdown. Facing third-and-six from the Boise State 25, Bell stuffed blitzing linebacker Blake Renaud, allowing Maxwell time to find Sims for an 18-yard gain. Bell did the rest, scoring his second touchdown to give the Spartans the lead.
Of course, 50 touches for one back is an unsustainable number. "I had no idea how many carries or yards I had," Bell said. "I was just out there running, trying to win the game." Bell might not survive that kind of workload, so the Spartans will have to incorporate more playmakers. Maxwell certainly seems comfortable with Sims, who caught seven passes for 65 yards, but Michigan State will need the receivers to contribute going forward. If they turn their mistakes to catches, Bell keeps bashing tacklers and the defense remains ferocious, Sparty's ceiling is high.
But even if Michigan State doesn't click in all phases, the Spartans have won enough squeakers to have confidence they can pull out an imperfect win like the one they manufactured Friday. "Guys grew up a little bit," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "They grew up. That's what we have to do."