No. 11 Michigan State barely survives upset-minded Utah State

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EAST LANSING, MI – AUGUST 31: LJ Scott #3 of the Michigan State Spartans tries to run through the tackle of Gaje Ferguson #23 of the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/teams/uud" data-ylk="slk:Utah State Aggies">Utah State Aggies</a> at Spartan Stadium on August 31, 2018 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
EAST LANSING, MI – AUGUST 31: LJ Scott #3 of the Michigan State Spartans tries to run through the tackle of Gaje Ferguson #23 of the Utah State Aggies at Spartan Stadium on August 31, 2018 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Michigan State survived an opening-night scare. Barely.

Hosting Utah State in front of a massive crowd, the No. 11 Spartans pulled out a 38-31 nail-biter, but only after blowing a two-score second-half lead.

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MSU led 27-14 late into the third quarter but allowed Utah State to come all the way back and take a 31-30 lead with 5:05 to play. But the Spartans were not going to have a huge dent put in their College Football Playoff hopes before September even begins.

The Spartans marched right down the field, going 75 yards in nine plays to retake the lead. Toward the end of the drive, which featured a tremendous catch by Felton Davis, MSU pulled out the option, and it worked in a big way. The winning touchdown came on a third-and-2 play from the USU 13. That was when Brian Lewerke had a perfectly-timed pitch to Connor Heyward, who waltzed into the end zone without much resistance.

But Utah State still had time. The Aggies, who gave MSU fits with its up-tempo attack all night, regained possession with 2:00 to play. Led by quarterback Jordan Love, USU moved into MSU territory — until linebacker Joe Bachie made a huge play. He batted a Love pass into the air and intercepted it to seal the win.

The game flipped in the span of 14 seconds

The Spartans held a comfortable 27-14 lead late into the third, but Utah State cut MSU’s lead to 27-17 with 1:55 left in the third quarter with a 40-yard Dominik Eberle field goal. And on the opening play of Michigan State’s ensuing drive, Lewerke made a big mistake.

Lewerke dropped back to pass, looked left, shifted his eyes back to the right and fired. That’s when USU’s Gaje Ferguson stepped in front of the pass and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown. All of a sudden, the lead was cut to just three, 27-24, with 1:41 left in the third.

Michigan State held onto the ball on its next drive, and looked primed to build the lead back to two possessions. However, an illegal formation penalty wiped a touchdown off the board, forcing MSU to settle for a short field goal.

With the deficit just 30-24, the Utah State offense, which gave MSU fits all night with its up-tempo attack, went back to work. The Aggies embarked on a 12-play scoring drive, converting on four third downs in the process. That fourth third down was a one-yard TD plunge by Darwin Thompson on third and goal.

With 5:05 to go, that gave Utah State a 31-30 lead, its first since the first quarter. But it proved to be short-lived. Lewerke, who threw for 287 yards, engineered the game-winning drive that was capped off by Heyward’s second touchdown of the game.

Heyward’s touchdown, coupled with Bachie’s clutch interception, sent the MSU faithful home happy. Well, relatively happy.

What does this mean for Michigan State?

It’s pretty hard to be eliminated from College Football Playoff contention in August, but Michigan State may have done that with a loss.

Utah State has the looks of a really solid team out of the Mountain West, but the Spartans could ill-afford a non-conference slip-up like this. With a juggernaut Big Ten schedule around the corner, MSU would have had virtually no room for error had they lost this one. No two-loss team has ever reached the playoff.

MSU has given its fans early season scares before. And it gives Mark Dantonio and his coaching staff plenty of teaching points ahead of his team’s cross-country trip to Arizona State next week. The pass defense looked especially shaky. The Aggies couldn’t get much of anything going on the ground, so Love was forced to throw early and often. MSU knew USU was throwing the ball, but still had trouble stopping it.

Love finished with a career-high 319 passing yards. The secondary will surely be a point of emphasis with the Manny Wilkins-to-N’Keal Harry connection to worry about in Tempe next week.

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