Michigan State desperately needed a big play to avoid an upset and Felton Davis delivered. Davis made a fully extended, 31-yard catch to help set up Connor Heyward's second touchdown with 2 minutes left to put the 11th-ranked Spartans ahead and they held on to beat Utah State 38-31 on Friday night.
Michigan State's high hopes for the season looked as if they might get dashed with 5:05 left in the opener for both teams after Darwin Thompson put the Aggies ahead with a 1-yard run, his second go-ahead score.
On perhaps the pivotal play of the game, Brian Lewerke dropped back, spun to his left and heaved a pass on a second-and-7 from midfield that Davis dove to catch. "Insane," Lewerke said.
Four snaps later, Heyward scored on a 13-yard run as Utah State's defense failed to make one more stop to beat the highest-ranked team in school history, surpassing the victory over No. 18 BYU in 2014.
Utah State did have one more chance to send the game to overtime — or possibly pull off the upset — but linebacker Joe Bachie tipped and intercepted a pass at midfield with 1:15 remaining.
"We were playing to win," Aggies coach Matt Wells said. "If we would have scored, we would have gone for 2."The Spartans trailed until the second quarter, built a 13-point lead late in the third and fell behind late in the opener for both teams.
"Over the course of our program, we've won a lot of close games," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "We certainly make it interesting. I wish we wouldn't."
Michigan State's Brian Lewerke was 23 of 33 for 287 yards with two TDs, including a go-ahead, 10-yard TD pass to Davis with 28 second left in the first half. Lewerke also threw an interception and lost a fumble. He threw an 8-yard TD pass to Cody White with 10:49 left in the first half, giving the Spartans their first lead after a sluggish start.
"It took a little bit to get going," Lewerke acknowledged. Jordan Love capped the opening, 75-yard drive with a 1-yard run and completed 29 of 44 passes for 319 yards with two interceptions for the Aggies, who went home proud of their performance. "It shows we've got a good team," he said. "We just came up short."
Hayward's first career score was on a 17-yard run in the third, which put Michigan State up 27-14. He is the son of the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, an NFL running back from 1988-1998. The sophomore ran for 436 yards on kickoff returns, had a combined 33 yards rushing and receiving and did not score last season.
LJ Scott ran for 84 yards on 23 carries and had 57 yards receiving on three catches for the Spartans.
Michigan State: Dantonio will have plenty of teachable moments to show the Spartans on film. They were able to overcome a sloppy game with nine penalties against a Mountain West Conference program, but may not be as fortunate against Big Ten competition.
"We have a lot of things to clean up," said safety Khari Willis, who had an interception.
Michigan State made mental and physical mistakes that led to penalties, settling for field goals twice after driving to the Utah State 1 twice.
"We can't do that in this conference," co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said.
The Spartans could slip due to the lackluster performance, especially if teams just ahead and behind them in the poll open with a win.
Michigan State won its 20th straight home opener, dating to its 23-16 loss as the 23rd-ranked team to No. 15 Colorado State in 1998 during Nick Saban's fourth of five seasons. The Spartans have not started the season with a loss at home to an unranked team since losing to Central Michigan in 1991.
Michigan State: At Arizona State on Sept. 8.