AP
Michigan State RB Edwin Baker

The Associated Press

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- On a team with few stars, Edwin Baker manages to stand out. Whether racing to the end zone at Michigan or powering his way to four touchdowns against Minnesota, Baker has been exactly what seventh-ranked Michigan State needed this season, emerging from a crowded backfield to rush for more than 1,000 yards.

"There was kind of a three-headed tailback group there,'' offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said. "But we always said, at the same time ... we would go with the guy that got hot. Edwin Baker, of course, just has had a tremendous year.''

Baker was one of Michigan State's top running backs last season along with Larry Caper, and the addition of freshman Le'Veon Bell in 2010 added to the competition. Baker ran for over 100 yards in each of the season's first two games, but Bell was right there with his own impressive numbers.

That helped Baker stay sharp. "Just knowing that he's one step behind me,'' Baker said. "Any mistake, and he can be the No. 1 back.''

Lately, the Spartans have been relying on Baker, who rushed for 118 yards on 28 carries in the regular-season finale at Penn State, a 28-22 win that earned Michigan State a share of the Big Ten title. A couple games before that, Baker ran for 179 yards and four touchdowns in a win against Minnesota. Baker has rushed for 1,187 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season, becoming the first Michigan State sophomore to run for 1,000 yards since T.J. Duckett in 2000.

At 5-foot-9, 208 pounds, Baker is plenty strong, but it's his speed that's been on full display this year. His 56-yard touchdown helped jump-start the offense in a win over Notre Dame, and his 61-yard scoring run against Michigan was another memorable play. The latter came in a 34-17 win in Ann Arbor, and Baker says it was a highlight for him.

"That was a special run for me,'' he said. "I always dreamed about playing in front of that crowd. A hundred thousand, that's a lot of people.''

Baker's explosiveness dispels at least one misconception about the Spartans. They're known as a team that keeps mistakes to a minimum and wins by making big plays on special teams -- such as the fake field goal that won the game against Notre Dame.

Baker, however, can score from anywhere on the field, and he adds some flash to the Michigan State offense. "I think that our offense -- our team -- gets overlooked,'' quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "I think everyone knows that -- that we haven't quite gotten the respect that we feel we have earned this year. ... There's no doubt, we have explosive players, and we need to show that on New Year's Day.''

The Spartans will play 15th-ranked Alabama in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1. Despite being ranked eight spots higher, Michigan State is a double-digit underdog. The Spartans finished in a three-way tie with Wisconsin and Ohio State for the conference title, then watched as they were left out of a BCS bowl.

In some ways, Baker personifies this Michigan State team. Despite all his yards and all his big plays, he hasn't received much national attention. Even in this matchup, he's overshadowed by Alabama's Mark Ingram, last year's Heisman Trophy winner.

Baker doesn't mind. He figures his team is used to having something to prove. "We've been the underdog all season,'' Baker said. "Being the underdog now is not really a shock to us. We knew that was coming. I think that's pretty much best for us.''