EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Kirk Cousins stood in the shotgun and took the snap, but the play was halted immediately because of a false start.
Fed up after a loss last weekend and an uneven beginning Saturday, the Michigan State quarterback spiked the ball in exasperation, drawing a 15-yard penalty and knocking his team out of field goal range.
“I was playing with emotion and got frustrated,” Cousins said. “There’s a lot on the line, and I’m a senior. I want to go out the right way.”
It wasn’t easy, but the 15th-ranked Spartans overcame those frustrations and beat Minnesota 31-24. Cousins threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns, and Michigan State finally took the lead for good when Le’Veon Bell’s 35-yard scoring run broke a 24-all tie with 10:58 remaining in the game.
Bell ran for 96 yards and two touchdowns, and the Spartans (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) shut out Minnesota after the Golden Gophers (2-7, 1-4) took a 24-21 lead with 9:40 to play in the third quarter.
MarQueis Gray threw three touchdown passes to Da’Jon McKnight for Minnesota, which upset Iowa last weekend but was unable to shake up the conference title race again.
“We wanted to take a few shots,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. “Game plan-wise, I think we gave ourselves a chance to win. We did on defense, also.”
Michigan State was coming off a 24-3 loss at Nebraska, and the Spartans didn’t take their first lead against Minnesota until the final seconds of the first half. Cousins probably cost Michigan State at least three points when he lost his cool during the second quarter.
With the game tied at 14, the Spartans had the ball inside the Minnesota 20 when there was movement up front for a false start that caused Cousins to take an unsportsmanlike conduct flag.
“I said, `What, you didn’t like the play call?”‘ coach Mark Dantonio said with a smile. “At the quarterback position, or at the head coach position, you want to try and keep your composure to the best of your abilities, but there’s a lot of human passions going on out there.”
Down 17-14 in the final minute of the half, Michigan State finally found a rhythm, driving 74 yards and taking the lead on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Cousins to Todd Anderson with 5 seconds left in the second quarter.
It was Anderson’s first career touchdown.
The advantage was short-lived. Minnesota went 80 yards in 11 plays at the start of the third and took a 24-21 lead when Gray found McKnight in the back of the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown on third-and-12.
Michigan State had a touchdown wiped out by a replay review later in the third. A sideways pass from Cousins to Bell hit the ground, and Minnesota defensive back Kyle Henderson stopped, assuming the play was over. Bell picked up the ball and ran 60 yards to the end zone, but after further review, officials ruled the pass went forward and changed their call to an incompletion.
That drive ended with a punt, but Trenton Robinson gave the Spartans good field position with the first of two big interceptions, acrobatically picking off Gray’s pass at the Minnesota 41.
“I always go to the sideline and say, `We’ve got to keep going. Somebody has got to make a play,”‘ Robinson said.
Dan Conroy tied it at 24 with a 40-yard field goal 11 seconds into the fourth quarter.
A short while later, Bell found running room to the right and went all the way to the end zone to put the Spartans ahead. Minnesota had the ball in Michigan State territory twice after that. The Gophers turned it over on downs at the 48 with 4:12 remaining.
After stopping the Spartans, Minnesota drove to the Michigan State 45 with 15 seconds left, but Robinson intercepted Gray again.
Gray was 19 of 32 for a career-high 295 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
“He played awfully good. He gave us an opportunity,” Kill said. “I think at the end of the game, the kid was physically exhausted. He gave everything he had but that’s how you learn.”
Michigan State entered the game ranked No. 1 in the nation in pass defense, but Gray and McKnight didn’t seem to notice. The 6-foot-4 quarterback found his senior receiver with a short pass early in the first quarter, and McKnight slipped past three potential tacklers before eventually dragging defensive back Johnny Adams into the end zone for a 64-yard touchdown to open the scoring.
McKnight caught nine passes for a career-high 173 yards.
Cousins answered with a 4-yard scoring pass to Keith Nichol, but a fumble by the Spartans’ Edwin Baker later in the quarter gave Minnesota the ball at the Michigan State 26. Gray’s 13-yard touchdown pass to McKnight put the Gophers back ahead.
The Spartans tied it at 14 on a 1-yard scoring run by Bell in the second.
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