For a third straight game, Michigan State was outscored in the fourth quarter.
If that worries coach Mark Dantonio, he did a pretty good job hiding it.
Dantonio was generally unruffled after the Spartans beat Central Michigan 31-20 on Saturday. It was a reasonably routine win for Michigan State, but the ending left a lot to be desired. The Spartans were outscored 17-0 in the final period.
Michigan State faltered at the end in a loss at Arizona State and nearly did so again when it played at Indiana, but after beating CMU, Dantonio wasn't going to panic over his team's late-game issues.
"I wasn't concerned about focus, I was concerned about Central, personally," Dantonio said.
Still, his team appeared to be dozing when CMU recovered an onside kick with the score 31-10 in the fourth. The Chippewas added 10 more points and started putting some pressure on the Spartans. To its credit, Michigan State moved the ball well enough to use up the final 6:44 after CMU pulled within 11.
Against Arizona State, however, the Spartans were up 13-3 going into the fourth and lost 16-13 . They gave up the first 14 points of the fourth against Indiana before holding on for a 35-21 victory .
"I like to say we play with grit, that we somehow find a way," Dantonio said. "We've won a lot of close games here, and we'll come and we'll play. But, we have to play better in certain areas, there's no question about that. We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work."
Michigan State moved up a spot to No. 20 in Sunday's Top 25. The Spartans host Northwestern next weekend. With a 31-3 lead over CMU after three quarters, Michigan State could afford to take its foot of the gas, but the Spartans might not be so fortunate if that happens against a Big Ten opponent.
"I think we just have to finish," safety David Dowell said. "That's a mentality."
Up 31-13 with 12:08 to play, the Spartans put backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi in, a move that symbolized the nonchalance with which Michigan State handled the final quarter. After going three-and-out and allowing a touchdown, the Spartans put starter Brian Lewerke back in, and they didn't give the ball up again.
Style points (or lack thereof) in September will probably be forgotten in the weeks to come, and Michigan State does have a habit of struggling with lesser opponents early, even in seasons in which the Spartans have contended for the conference title. In 2013, when Michigan State went to the Rose Bowl, the Spartans let the likes of Western Michigan and South Florida hang around during nonconference matchups.
But Michigan State's failure to finish strong already cost the Spartans one game, and the toughest matchups of the season aren't far off. After the Northwestern game, Michigan State plays Penn State and Michigan in consecutive weeks, and it will probably take a more complete performance to beat either of those rivals.
"Every football team is always a work in progress," Dantonio said. "We'll come and we'll compete, and that's all I can ever ask our guys. We need to eliminate the mistakes and when we have opportunities we need to take advantage of them."
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