MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—After watching Minnesota score to pull within a touchdown late in the second quarter, Michigan State coach John L. Smith approached his kick return unit on the sideline.
“I said, ‘What can you do with 43 seconds?’ They said, ‘Coach, we can take it back.”’
DeAndra Cobb’s 100-yard kickoff return gave control back to Michigan State and the 15th-ranked Spartans went on to beat the No. 25 Gophers 44-38 on Saturday.
Jeff Smoker led Michigan State with 252 yards passing and ran for a touchdown.
Jaren Hayes had two touchdown runs for the Spartans (7-1, 4-0 Big Ten), who won their fifth straight and snapped a three-game losing streak to the Gophers. Dave Rayner kicked field goals of 46, 50 and 52 yards for Michigan State.
The Spartans are off to a 4-0 Big Ten start for only the third time in school history. The previous two times, Michigan State went on to win back-to-back conference titles in 1965-66.
“I would say that we are contenders,” Smith said. “We have a chance. We’ve played awfully good. This is the start of the climb.”
They appeared to seal the win on Jason Teague’s 60-yard TD run with 6:47 to play.
But Minnesota managed to put together two late scoring drives. Jakari Wallace caught his first career TD pass on a 23-yard pass from Asad Abdul-Khaliq with 4:47 left. And Aaron Hosack hauled in an 8-yard reception, his second score of the day, to make it 44-38.
But Minnesota failed to recover an onside kick and the Spartans ran out the clock to become the only Big Ten team with a 4-0 record.
“We are good as of right now,” Rayner said. “But we have other games to play. I think we are a contender though.”
The Gophers lost their second straight after starting 6-0. A week after a fourth-quarter collapse against Michigan, the Gophers (6-2, 2-2) came out flat and trailed 17-0 before fighting back into the game.
But their momentum died on Cobb’s return.
Cobb’s amazing run came with 37 seconds left in the first half after Minnesota scored to pull to 24-17.
The junior cornerback took Rhys Lloyd’s kick in the end zone, ran up the middle and quickly accelerated out of the pack up the right sideline, drawing a loud groan from the crowd.
“I don’t think it was really deflating,” Gophers safety Justin Fraley said. “Our think is we’re going to have to play 60 minutes.”
But Minnesota suffered another quick setback on the next possession, when the Spartans’ Ronald Stanley recovered a fumble by Marion Barber III. Rayner’s 50-yard field goal gave the Spartans a 34-17 halftime lead.
Rayner, who has made 11 consecutive field goals, added a 52-yard kick with 1:47 left in the third to make it 37-17.
Minnesota still had a chance after Abdul-Khaliq, who threw for a career-high 377 yards, hit Hosack for a 17-yard TD pass with 20 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Gophers tried to fuel the rally midway through the fourth when they drove to the Spartans 17. But Michigan State, which held the Gophers to 148 yards on the ground, stuffed Abdul-Khaliq on consecutive plays and dropped Barber on a trick play on fourth down.
Minnesota, which racked up 424 yards against the Wolverines last week, came into the game averaging 305 yards in conference play.
“We knew after the success we had last week that they were going to gang up to stop the run,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said.
Minnesota turned the ball over on the opening kickoff when Jared Posthumus couldn’t handle Rayner’s short kick. Mark Goebel recovered the ball and Michigan State took over at the Gophers 36.
Four plays later, Hayes had an 11-yard touchdown run and the Spartans led 7-0 only 1:22 into the game.
“That’s huge,” Smoker said. “Especially when you’re on the road. You take the crowd out of it.”
Hayes scored again on a 6-yard run on Michigan State’s next drive.
The Gophers got some momentum after Lloyd kicked a 23-yard field goal to start the second.
Abdul-Khaliq started to find his rhythm when he hit Thomas Tapeh on a 31-yard pass to the Spartans 10. Two plays later, Abdul-Khaliq threw a 13-yard TD pass to Tony Patterson.
The Spartans took a 24-10 lead on Smoker’s 6-yard run on third down with just under five minutes left in the half.
Minnesota pulled to 24-17 on Barber’s 1-yard run on fourth down with 48 seconds to go. The score was Barber’s 15th of the season and extended his school record.