EAST LANSING - After just two games, junior running back Le'Veon Bell is not just one of MSU's good players, he's one of their great ones.
With all of the added attention he's been getting because of his production, he will be at the top of the opponent's list for the rest of the season.
He will enter Saturday's contest ranked second in the Big Ten and sixth in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing, averaging 140.0 yards per game. He is also tied for first in the conference in scoring (12.0 ppg.) and rushing touchdowns (4), and is second in all-purpose yards (167.5 ypg.).
Those numbers make him Public Enemy No. 1 to the Irish defense. So expect him to garner a lot of attention, even more than normal in a game of this magnitude.
He is aware of this, but it doesn't change his approach to each game.
"During the week, you just kind of build up into it," Bell said. "On Tuesday, you don't want to be too hyped for it. I mean, you definitely want to be ready for it mentally but you don't want to wear yourself out before the game comes. And then on gameday, I watch a little more film and listen to music just to relax. I don't feel like it's a difference."
Bell enters Saturday night's game with 280 yards and a 4.5 yards a carry average.
"I just want to go out there and do what my team needs me to do," Bell said. "I know they're (Notre Dame) probably going to gameplan for me and everything but that's what makes the game of football great. I want to go out there, beat their gameplan and do what I have to do to win, whether it's being the decoy or actually getting the ball and making plays.''
Bell knows after facing Boise State and Central Michigan that the stakes will be raised tremendously in this game, especially with the Spartans trying to solidify their Top 10 standing and Notre Dame trying to prove it's going to be a major player in the national agenda despite having the toughest schedule in the country.
"This is a bigger team," Bell said of this week's opponent. "We haven't played a team with their size yet. They've got big d-linemen, they've got big linebackers, they've got big safeties, so just getting adjusted to their size means we're going to have to go out there and be physical at the point of attack and running the ball. That's what we really want to get back to because we didn't do it great last year (at South Bend).''
As for the added local attention of being a household name on the national stage.
"It is kind of strange," Bell said. "Walking into class and people are asking for pictures and autographs. It's different and I love it but at the same time I have to keep my head level. Just coming out here, practicing and working hard. I'm still just doing whatever it takes to make sure we stay successful as a program.''
Still, it has to be a little unsettling when his professors are part of the class disruption.
"I remember the whole second week when I was walking into class, people were trying to take pictures and get autographs," Bell said. "Even the professors were asking for pictures and stuff too. I didn't know what to do because I didn't want to interrupt class but I got there early so I was able to do it. But yeah, it was crazy.''
Growing up in a household that featured a father and an uncle who played previously in the Michigan State-Notre Dame rivalry, Max Bullough may have a deeper understanding of what's at stake when the Spartans and Irish meet.
"You can just sense it when you come to practice," Bullough said. "There's certain weeks where there's more intensity and this week is definitely one of them.
"Going back to when I was a kid, I've gone to a lot of these games between Michigan State and Notre Dame, and it's something that means a lot to both schools, and that's what makes it a rivalry. That's what makes it a little bit more intense and a little bit more ferocious out there.''
Under The Lights
This will be MSU's second night game in three weeks and the players still not only view it as a special event but are getting used to the idea of playing after dark in front of a national TV audience.
Senior guard Chris McDonald looks at Saturday's game under the lights as a way of bringing some nice recognition to the school but also as a way to make amends for the Spartans' poor performance in South Bend last season when MSU lost, 31-13.
MSU also has done well in night contests with wins in their last four tries at night and an 8-4 overall mark.
"Being able to play in games like this says a lot," McDonald said. "Last year we played Notre Dame down there in South Bend and we didn't perform well. Our o-line, we didn't do what we could do so we're taking this one a little personal. And having it as a night game, having on ABC, that's all special, extra stuff but it doesn't really mean anything. We could be playing right now and it's going to be a big game in this backyard. Either way it's a big game.''
In saying that, because this is his last go-round against the Irish, McDonald is extremely motivated to come out on the winning end.
"It really means a lot," he said. "I've never beaten them down there so I want to come in my senior year and beat them in the big house of Spartan Stadium.''
A Little Something Extra
Look for a little extra juice from Micajah Reynolds when the junior defensive tackle lines up for the first time as a starter against Notre Dame.
Reynolds, who took his game to another level this past spring and fall to earn a starting d-tackle spot, also has some personal connections when it comes to Notre Dame.
While he offered the polite, if not ambiguous 'I don't remember, probably not, because I wasn't really recruited anyway,' when asked if he was recruited by Notre Dame as a prep standout, it's obvious he wants to make an impression in Saturday's game.
"This game's a little more personal because I've been down there so many times and I have family down there, and that was one of the schools I wanted to go to when I was younger," he said. "So it's a great feeling to know that you can play here in a night game and beat them after dreaming about playing with or against them for the longest time. It's a real surreal feeling, just from being younger and living out the dream now.''
Reynolds, who has an aunt and uncle down South Bend way, admitted there's been a few 'friendly' family exchanges this week.
"Oh yeah, they'll be up for the game, so it will be fun.''
As a senior, Larry Caper is very familiar with how these MSU-Notre Dame games usually end up.
With nine of the last 12 games being decided by seven points or less, Caper said the Spartans have to make sure they are doing something specific to finish Saturday night's game victorious.
"It's definitely going to be a boxing match and we have to last all four quarters," he said. "With little guys on defense (in the first two games), you just have to make sure you're in condition. On the flipside, when you're hitting guys that big (like Notre Dame's), you have to make sure you stay mentally engaged because if you're winning a boxing match and you let the guy get out of it, you're going to get knocked back in the fourth quarter. So don't get punched in the mouth. We went down there last year and we got punched in the mouth and started taking steps backward. So this game, we've got to punch them in the mouth and make sure that at the point of attack, we're knocking them backwards.''
Despite that philosophy, Caper doesn't want to blow the importance of the contest out of proportion.
"I wouldn't say it's too much of a different feeling," Caper said. "I would just say I feel more at ease being an older guy and having played in big games before, it's just another game. We've got to get the 'W' and continue to go 1-0 on the weekend if we want to continue to try and go to the Rose Bowl, go to the national championship or whatever it may be. I wouldn't say playing against Notre Dame for the last time for me is no big deal but I probably won't really feel it until the season's over. I'm just trying to prepare for it like it's just another game, having fun, then letting it roll off my shoulders and going on to the next one.''