EAST LANSING, Mich. -- This was not the way No. 20 Michigan State wanted to look heading into the Big Ten season.
The listless Spartans failed to score a touchdown until the fourth quarter of a 23-7 victory over winless Eastern Michigan on Saturday in Spartan Stadium. Tailback Le'Veon Bell rushed for a career-high 253 yards and a late touchdown on 36 carries and Dan Conroy kicked three field goals to prevent an embarrassing loss.
Andrew Maxwell's 10-yard pass to tight end Dion Sims with 7:19 remaining was the Spartans' first touchdown in eight quarters. Maxwell passed for 159 yards while completing 16 of 29 attempts.
Coach Mark Dantonio was particularly frustrated with his receiving corps. While Sims made six catches for 112 yards, none of the wideouts had more than four catches or 21 yards.
"What you've got to do to improve is catch the ball," he said. "Throw and catch. There's nothing wrong with the route. The route's there and the ball's there, so you've got to catch the ball. I hate to lay it out there like that, but that's just the way it is."
Bell, whose previous career best was 210 rushing yards in this season's opener against Boise State, tacked on a 1-yard scoring plunge with 2:05 remaining. He achieved a career high against a defense designed to stop him.
"Eastern stacked the box," Bell said. "They had eight or nine in the box the whole game and the offensive line did a great job of allowing me to hit the holes and get to the second level. That (defense) was something we hadn't seen all year. We're just going to keep running it and getting better each week."
Michigan State (3-1), which was limited to a field goal by Notre Dame in its previous outing, begins its conference schedule Saturday with a home game against unbeaten Ohio State.
Eastern Michigan (0-4) gave up an average of 40.7 points and 514.3 total yards in its first three games but stifled MSU's passing attack and made key third-down stops to keep it close.
"We've been improving on defense every week," coach Ron English said. "We've been on the field a lot because we've been put in bad situations (by turnovers). But the issue at the end of the game is we're not finishing. That's the frustrating part."
The Eagles' offense couldn't match their defensive effort, gaining just 183 yards, 46 on the ground. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Benz made his first career start ahead of senior Alex Gillett and passed for 137 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions but the Eagles were 2 of 16 combined on third- and fourth-down conversions.
"I liked him out there," English said. "I liked his poise against a heck of a defense. He was 13 of 26 for 137 and no picks. I'll take that all day long."
Conroy kicked a 35-yard field goal with 1:11 remaining in the third quarter, giving the Spartans a 9-7 advantage. The score was set up by Jairus Jones' recovery of a Javonti Greene fumble at the Eagles' 44-yard line and passes of 16 and 17 yards from Maxwell to Sims.
A 12-play, 89-yard scoring drive, completed by Maxwell's scoring pass, gave the Spartans some breathing room.
"I didn't feel like we made any progress at all," Spartans offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said. "Obviously, Le'Veon had a good afternoon running the ball and Dion got active in the pass game and made some plays. Short of that, we're going to have to get a whole lot better."
Bell had 117 yards by halftime, but the Spartans were held to a field goal and trailed 7-3.
Michigan State receiver Bennie Fowler fumbled a short pass from Maxwell, leading to the Eagles' score. Linebacker Justin Cudworth recovered the ball at the Spartans' 23 and Eastern Michigan scored on the next play. Receiver Donald Scott made a leaping catch of a Benz pass over the middle with 3:58 remaining in the half.
Conroy's 35-yard field goal earlier in the quarter were the only points Michigan State could muster. Conroy missed a 39-yard try in the first quarter and Fowler dropped a potential touchdown pass in the second prior to Conroy's field goal. Boos rained down from the crowd as the Spartans headed back to the locker room.
NOTES: Michigan State's top defensive end, William Gholston, was benched in the first half for missing too much practice time. ... The Spartans have won all nine meetings against the Eagles. ... Eastern Michigan is 0-31 against current Big Ten teams. ... MSU is 42-7-2 against current members of the Mid-American Conference and has won 27 of its last 30 games against MAC opponents. ... The Spartans have been ranked in the USA Today coaches poll for a school-record 33 consecutive weeks, dating to the 2010 season.