By DAVE CAMPBELL/AP Sports Writer
MINNESOTA (AP) – Le’Veon Bell patiently looked for openings before he trampled through Minnesota’s defense and dragged some of the Gophers with him.
Michigan State had to wait the whole Big Ten season for this, but the Spartans finally put together a comfortable victory.
Bell rumbled for a career-high 266 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown to put the game away, leading Michigan State past Minnesota 26-10 on Saturday to secure a spot in a bowl game.
“We bring a name with us wherever we go, and we’re going to bring people with us wherever we go,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “So it’ll be exciting.”
Bell carried 35 times on a cold afternoon, Dan Conroy made four of his five field-goal attempts, three of them from 43 yards or longer, and the Spartans (6-6, 3-5) wore down the Gophers (6-6, 2-6) to finish 4-1 on the road this season.
“We can’t lose today,” Bell said, noting Dantonio’s bowl game appearances in each of his first five years at Michigan State: “We didn’t want to be the first team not to do it. So we did everything in our power to go out there and get that win.”
Minnesota played the second half without coach Jerry Kill, after he had a seizure in the locker room. Athletic director Norwood Teague said he was resting comfortably afterward and didn’t need to be hospitalized. The Gophers, now accustomed to his condition, said they weren’t distracted, only disappointed by their performance. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ran the team after halftime.
Aaron Hill’s 33-yard interception return for a touchdown gave Minnesota a lead it kept for more than 18 minutes in the first half, but the Gophers finished with 96 total yards — including just 4 yards rushing — for their lowest output since at least 1996. According to STATS research, that’s the fewest yards from scrimmage by a Big Ten team in five years. Michigan had 91 total yards against Ohio State on Nov. 17, 2007.
Philip Nelson threw three interceptions, two by Johnny Adams, and was replaced in the fourth quarter by Max Shortell, who was picked off too.
Despite the single-digit margin that lasted until 7:25 was left, when Bell jogged across the goal line from 8 yards out, this was downright domination for the Spartans considering how close all their games were this season. They lost five times in conference play by a total of 13 points, and their other two Big Ten wins were by seven points combined.
“That football, I don’t think, gets enough credit,” Claeys said, adding: “You could tell in the fourth quarter that they got a little blood in the water when they had the opportunity to win the ballgame. They picked it up a notch.”
Adams moved into 10th on Michigan State’s all-time list with 11 interceptions. The first one set up Conroy’s first field goal, but the Spartans advanced only 3 yards after it. The second one led to a punt.
For all the work the defense did to keep the Gophers competitive, there were two major lapses. In the second quarter, Andrew Maxwell went 5 for 7 for 74 yards to lead an 82-yard touchdown drive capped by a 40-yard catch and run for the score by Bennie Fowler off a tipped pass. Fowler finished with seven receptions and 101 yards.
Then there was the clinching march, when Bell ran eight straight times to close from 8 yards out and stretch the lead to 16 points. Bell was the conference’s second-leading rusher behind Wisconsin’s Montee Bell entering the week, and is ninth in the nation. The junior became the seventh rusher in Spartans history to pass the 3,000-yard mark for his career.
“He’s like a machine,” Minnesota cornerback Michael Carter said.
Maxwell was intercepted twice in the first half, including one by Brock Vereen in the end zone. Hill’s slick grab in the flat was the third pick returned for a touchdown against Maxwell this season. He has 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions this season. He went 13 for 29 for 143 yards.
Nelson finished 10 for 23 for 61 yards.
Minnesota’s trouble moving the ball was predictable. The Gophers, except for their 34-point first half that fueled a 44-28 win over Purdue on Oct. 28, haven’t scored more than 17 points in a game since a mid-September win over Western Michigan. Then there’s that Spartans defense, as stingy as ever despite this disappointing follow-up to those consecutive 11-win seasons. Seventh in the nation and tops in the Big Ten in yards allowed per game, this group hasn’t been to blame for the slip.
But the Spartans offense was good enough to win this time, too. Linebacker Max Bullough challenged the group in the team meeting the night before.
“I just said, `Guys, we’ve got to put some points up,”‘ Bullough said. “Defense, we’re going to stop them. We have confidence in that.”
The message was well-received, and Bell led the way. This was his third 200-yard game this season. Only Lorenzo White, with four in 1985, has done that more for Michigan State.
“Unbelievable,” Maxwell said. “That was the best game that I have ever seen him play. He did everything that was asked of him.”
Get the latest scores for Tigers, Lions, Red Wings, and Pistons scores delivered daily to you from 97.1 for FREE. Simply text the keyword to the number and you’re all set! Text SCORE to 97136. To unsubscribe anytime, reply STOP. Standard message charges apply.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)