Michigan State demonstrated growth on Saturday where it is needed, in a passing game that has been the Spartans' main concern since the end of last season.
But the only real concern is winning now that the Big Ten season has started. And the Spartans couldn't do enough to avoid an early setback, 17-16 to Ohio State on Saturday, in their quest to return to the Big Ten title game.
That was especially true of MSU's vaunted defense, which gave up a third-quarter lead moments after the Spartans got it, then allowed the Buckeyes to kill the final 4:10 on running plays.
No. 20 MSU (3-2) fell in the Big Ten opener in front of 76,705 at Spartan Stadium despite 269 passing yards from Andrew Maxwell and a 29-yard highlight-reel scoring reception from Keith Mumphery.
Le'Veon Bell had just 45 rushing yards, though, and OSU quarterback Braxton Miller recovered from two lost fumbles and an interception to burn MSU for 179 passing yards and 136 rushing yards.
No. 14 Ohio State (5-0) has been starting slowly this season, but the Buckeyes took the opening kick - after MSU won the coin toss and deferred - and drove the ball right through the Spartans for a touchdown in less than 3 minutes.
Miller, stifled by this MSU defense as a freshman a year ago, ripped off a 20-yard run on the first play. He later got 13 yards and took a late hit from Isaiah Lewis for 15 more, putting the ball at the MSU 14.
Miller had to leave the game after that hit, but three more runs produced a Jordan Hall 1-yard plunge to make it 7-0 with 12:09 left. And Miller was cleared to return.
MSU's offense responded, marching 50 yards thanks to a pair of 13-yard screen passes to Bell. The drive stalled at the Ohio State 17, but Dan Conroy made it 7-3 with a 34-yard field goal - his fourth-straight make.
So less than half a quarter in, it looked like a national TV audience might enjoy more offense than expected.
Or not. The score was still 7-3 as the teams jogged off at halftime, despite good chances for both.
Ohio native Kurtis Drummond picked off Miller on a short pass after the Buckeyes had marched to the MSU 25.
Conroy missed a 42-yard field goal try. The Buckeyes blocked a Mike Sadler punt and got the ball at the MSU 35, but the Spartans forced and recovered a Miller fumble to avoid danger there.
The offenses resumed functioning after the break. MSU got the ball first and drove for a 50-yard Conroy field goal.
Ohio State responded with a 66-yard drive that stalled at the MSU 9. A 26-yard field goal made it 10-6.
Then the offenses started making big plays. Mumphery scored on a 29-yard pass, breaking tackles and dragging tacklers into the end zone after initial contact around the 10-yard line.
On the fourth play of the ensuing possession, Miller dropped back and lofted a perfect pass to Devin Smith, in stride and beyond Johnny Adams. The 63-yard play made it 17-13 OSU with 4:49 left in the third quarter.
The Spartans added a 48-yard field goal after another Miller fumble deep in MSU territory. Then MSU got a stop and the ball back at its 20 with 5:39 left, needing just a field goal to win it.
The result? Three and out. And the Buckeyes killed it from there.
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