One of these weeks, maybe the Spartans' habit of barely edging out opponents will catch up with them. That week was not this week.
Michigan State trailed Rutgers at halftime and was tied as late as the game's final minute, but an LJ Scott touchdown tote with 43 seconds left served as the go-ahead and game-winning score as the Spartans stayed perfect, 6-0, with a 31-24 victory over the Scarlet Knights.
Last week, it was a narrow escape against Purdue that allowed Michigan State to keep its undefeated status. In that game, the Spartans led, 21-0, at halftime only to watch that shrink to a nail-biting 24-21 final margin.
Saturday, for the first time this season, really, the Spartans had to play from behind.
Connor Cook found Macgarrett Kings for the game's first score, and Michigan State led, 7-0, after a quarter. But Rutgers was jolted by the return of its best player, wide receiver Leonte Carroo, who sat out the previous two games with a suspension after he was charged with simple assault. But with that charge dropped earlier this week, Carroo was back in action, and he was productive, to say the least. He caught a pair of second-quarter touchdown tosses from Chris Laviano, the second a 39-yard strike that put the Knights ahead of the Spartans, 14-7.
Later in the half, Cook was about to lead a game-tying drive when he was intercepted in spectacular fashion in the end zone by Kiy Hester. Michael Geiger clanged in a field goal off the upright later in the quarter, and the Spartans went to the break staring at a four-point deficit.
It was Scott who tied the game in the third quarter with a one-yard touchdown run. Cook hit DeAnthony Arnett with a 25-yard pass for a go-ahead touchdown that provided a 10-point advantage for the nation's fourth-ranked team.
But Carroo struck again, his third touchdown grab of the day going 28 yards for a score that cut the Michigan State edge to 24-21. Kyle Federico's fourth-quarter field goal tied the game at 24, making the Spartans sweat perhaps as much as they've had to yet.
But Michigan State went on a 10-play, 76-yard drive that featured a 29-yard pass from Cook to R.J. Shelton and a 16-yard run by Scott that set up the running back's three-yard touchdown run with 43 seconds left.
Rutgers mounted one last attempt at an upset, but in a strange sequence, Laviano spiked the ball on fourth down, turning it over to Michigan State. Laviano had been sacked on the previous play, and believing it to be third down, he spiked the ball to stop the clock, but it was actually fourth down. He said after the game that the down marker still said third down. If that was the case, it would the second straight week a Big Ten officiating crew has screwed up the down markers in a game, with a similar-type play occurring in last week's Illinois-Nebraska game.
(Video from BTN.com)
Cook, despite his interception, had perhaps his finest statistical day of the season. He completed 23 passes (on 38 attempts) for 357 yards — a total just a yard shy of his career high, set in last season's loss to Ohio State — and two touchdowns. Scott, meanwhile, only got nine carries, but two of them went for touchdowns.
The Laviano-Carroo connection served as the biggest stat-producer of the day for Rutgers, which nearly scored a monumental upset but fell to 2-3 with the loss. In his return, Carroo caught seven passes for 134 yards and three touchdowns. It brings his season totals to 14 catches, 315 yards and six touchdowns in just 10 quarters of play.
Michigan State posted nearly 500 yards of total offense against Rutgers, but it didn't mean an easy day. There have been few of those this season for Michigan State, particularly the defense, which has been plagued by injuries and bothered by an inexperienced secondary. Despite that big Week 2 win over Oregon and its still-undefeated status, Michigan State has looked anything but a College Football Playoff contender.