Toss out one long run, and Indiana State running back Shakir Bell looked average Thursday night against Indiana.
The player Kevin Wilson has referred to as a "Heisman Trophy type-player" at the FCS level was of course a major area of focus for the Indiana defense this week. Indiana fans remembered him well from 2012, when Bell torched the Hoosiers with 192 yards on 24 carries.
IU's defense showed improvement this time around, limiting Bell to 113 yards on 18 carries in the Hoosiers' 73-35 win over the Sycamores Thursday at Memorial Stadium. In Bell's defense, however, he played less than a half of football. He injured his shoulder in the final two minutes of the first half and watched the second half of the game with his shoulder pads off and sitting on the Sycamores bench.
Still, take away the one big 45 yard run and Bell was limited to 68 yards on 17 carries. Overall the defense held the Sycamores to 131 yards rushing on 39 carries, an average of just 3.4 yards per carry.
"I feel like we were gap sound," freshman defensive lineman Darius Latham said. "We were all dialed in to what we were doing and just made plays."
Bell's biggest play came with 1:31 to go in the first half, when he scampered down the right sideline for a 45-yard gain to the Indiana 33. He looked destined to score until junior safety Mark Murphy tracked him down from behind. The tackle resulted in a separated shoulder that knocked Bell out for the rest of the game.
"The good news is that they did an x-ray and there is nothing broken," Indiana State coach Mike Sanford said. "He has a shoulder injury, and we're going to wait and see the severity of it as we go along."
The encouraging thing for IU's defense is that seemingly every time Bell touched the ball, there were three or four Crimson jerseys there to meet him. Issues arose when the defense let him escape a sea of would-be tacklers.
"He's a good player," Kevin Wilson said of Bell. "We let him out a couple times. There were some times we were there, we had him corralled and let him out. But I do think you see we're getting more guys, we're sounder and we're getting more guys to the ball. I think we're playing faster. I think we're hitting OK.
"We do need to wrap up and tackle better. It wasn't bad, but we'll need to as we go forward."
Freshman linebacker T.J. Simmons registered a game-high nine tackles, and agreed that Indiana needs to do a better job tackling.
"We were getting to the ball, were hawking the ball but we've got to make the plays," he said. "We had three objectives and one of them was tackling, making the sure tackle. And I think we didn't wrap up as well as we could. We'll work on that."
Bell provided the Indiana defense with an immediate litmus test. The run defense looks better. The unit looks faster and more athletic. But there is still much room for improvement and tougher opponents ahead.
Indiana can take solace in the fact that with a couple of more textbook tackles, it could have held one of college football's best running backs — FCS or otherwise — below the century mark.
"We did pretty good against the run but they popped a couple of explosion plays," Simmons said. "We just want to limit that to zero."