PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Michigan State’s season was on the edge of disaster again, but Connor Cook and the Spartans’ offense kept it perfect for at least another week.
Cook’s 29-yard toss to R.J. Shelton on a third-and-9 from deep in MSU territory was the key play in a 76-yard touchdown drive to beat Rutgers, 31-24 on Saturday night at High Points Solutions Stadium. Freshman LJ Scott ran it in from 3 yards away with 43 seconds left, and MSU’s Malik McDowell got the sack to end Rutgers’ last-gasp drive.
The No. 4 Spartans (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) remain perfect this season, but continue to deal with injuries and poor play entering Saturday’s game at surging rival Michigan. But Cook threw for 357 yards, one off his career high, and Aaron Burbridge had a career-high nine catches for 146 yards for the Spartans.
Rutgers (2-3, 0-2) didn’t have suspended head coach Kyle Flood for a third straight game but got 134 receiving yards and three touchdowns from Leonte Carroo after his two-game suspension ended. The Scarlet Knights led at halftime and pushed the Spartans in front of 50,373 fans, but couldn’t quite get the job finished.
The Spartans nearly opened the scoring on the first drive, but Burbridge dropped a perfect Cook pass that would have been a touchdown. Rutgers then blocked a 35-yard Michael Geiger field-goal attempt to drop Geiger to 4 for 8 on the season.
MSU still opened the scoring, with an 8-yard pass from Cook to Macgarrett Kings Jr. But more special-teams miscues and a defensive mistake on a 72-yard run helped Rutgers score the next two touchdowns – both passes to Carroo, the star receiver whose domestic assault charges were dropped this week, ending a suspension that lasted two games.
The second of those scores was a 39-yard bomb with Carroo burning MSU’s Arjen Colquhoun. Shortly after that, MSU lost the other starting corner, Darian Hicks, after a hard hit to Hicks’ head.
Geiger got on the board with a 30-yard field goal and MSU was in position to take the lead late in the first half, but Cook threw an ill-advised interception trying to hit Jamal Lyles in double coverage.
It was 14-10 Rutgers at the break, but the MSU offense took charge to start the second half. Cook led drives of 73 and 51 yards, Scott scoring the first touchdown from a yard away after not playing in the first half.
MSU coach Mark Dantonio told the Big Ten Network that Scott didn’t play in the first half because he was “hampered,” but he came in to replace starter Madre London, who suffered what appeared to be a serious injury to his right foot or ankle.
London was soon on crutches and wearing a heavy wrap on the foot. The second touchdown was a 25-yard pass to DeAnthony Arnett to make it 24-14 Spartans.
Full control was in MSU’s grasp … but Rutgers answered immediately with a touchdown drive capped by Carroo’s third touchdown. He raced past safety Montae Nicholson, who bit on a run fake, and was wide open for a 28-yard score.
Then Rutgers got a stop. MSU backup punter Tyler O’Connor, in for Jake Hartbarger after an apparent injury, pinned the Scarlet Knights at their 5.
The Scarlet Knight moved all the way to the MSU 4, slicing through MSU’s defense. But Colquhoun got his hand on a pass for Carroo on third-and-goal, forcing a tying Kyle Federico 22-yard field goal with 4:21 left.
So MSU’s offense got the ball with a chance to win it. On a third-and-9 from his own 24, Cook stepped back and delivered a perfect deep pass to R.J. Shelton, good for 29 yards on a difficult catch.
That helped MSU get to the Rutgers 19, where All-America center Jack Allen – playing left tackle — went down with a right leg injury that forced him to be helped off the field.
LJ Scott took the next play 16 yards over left tackle, though, with hobbling Kodi Kieler back in the game at that spot, in his first action since hurting his right knee Sept. 12. And Scott scored from 3 yards away with 43 seconds left for the final margin.