Spartans struggle before dispatching CMU
East Lansing — Michigan State heads into Big Ten play next week unbeaten, the first time it's done that since 2010.
But that mark hasn't come easily, and Saturday's 30-10 victory over Central Michigan in front of 75,218 at Spartan Stadium was another struggle for the No. 2-ranked Spartans.
Sophomore running back Gerald Holmes scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to help Michigan State (4-0) pull away, but overall it was another uneven performance for a team that, aside from its signature win over Oregon, has three far-from-stellar victories over teams it was a double-digit favorite against.
"You take a bad day and you make it a good day by winning," coach Mark Dantonio said. "And my thought process is it's very difficult to win, we say that every week. … There are no easy games. Look around the country, the easy games very rarely exist, unless people get on a roll. But football teams stay in there, they start to build a little bit of belief that they can do it and they start to change the momentum of the football game, and credit our football team, we were able to swing it back our way and take control in the fourth quarter."
Michigan State started quickly enough on offense, scoring on its first three possessions.
Redshirt freshman running back Madre London scored on a 6-yard run followed by a 47-yard field goal by junior Michael Geiger early in the second half. Quarterback Connor Cook then hit junior tight end Josiah Price with a 5-yard touchdown pass to make it 17-0 with 5:13 left in the second quarter.
On the flipside, Central Michigan was controlling the ball, hanging on to it for 19:04 of the first half. However, the Chippewas had a pair of field goals blocked in the first quarter — the first by sophomore Demetrius Cooper and the second by fifth-year senior Shilique Calhoun.
The Chippewas managed to find the end zone in the final seconds of the first half when quarterback Cooper Rush hit Anthony Rice with a 1-yard touchdown pass.
Rush, who finished 26-for-39 for 285 yards, helped Central Michigan convert six of nine third downs in the first half as the Michigan State defense struggled to get off the field.
"Throwing for completions on third down was key," Central Michigan coach John Bonamego said. "Cooper is a great football player. He's the leader of our offense. He's done a tremendous job and you can't say enough good things about him."
Michigan State's offense went on hiatus in the third quarter with three straight punts and Central Michigan was able to close the gap after a 42-yard field goal from Brian Eavey midway through the third quarter.
But the Spartans' defense came up big in the final quarter, turning the ball over on downs, forcing a punt and causing a fumble while the pass rush starting getting to the Chippewas quarterback. Calhoun finished with 2.5 sacks while the Spartans had four for the game.
Putting pressure on Rush was the key, and the adjustment made at halftime was to drop more people in coverage.
"We probably spent too much time (in the first half) disguising and not enough time getting after it, trying to beat people one on one," co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said. "He is good enough to find the holes. In the second half, we were a lot more successful. We dropped eight, tried to eliminate all those windows, guys like Shilique could get home with the three-man rush and we're good enough to do that."
The offense took advantage and put together two solid drives to close the game out, something it has struggled to do at times this season.
Holmes scored on a 3-yard run and followed that with a 6-yard touchdown run with 3:21 to play that put the game away.
"We're all about finishing," Cook said. "That's the one thing that we haven't done well this year, so far. I thought that was very encouraging by the way we handled our business in the fourth quarter, finished and were able to put some points up on the board."
Michigan State now turns its attention to conference play, beginning with a visit from Purdue next week, the same Purdue team that pushed Michigan State to the limit last season.
And knowing they'll get everyone's best shot the rest of the way, the Spartans insist there will be nothing taken for granted.
"We've got to earn everything we've got," Dantonio said. "We'll continue to do that, but right now I know that we're 4-0 and we need to take stock of that and be able to move forward and do our job. I think we've got everybody's attention in terms of what went down, so I think the preparation will be there."