Well, goal not quite reached. A week after it let Nebraska back in a game it led 27-3 before winning 27-22, Michigan State had a similarly interesting fourth quarter against Purdue. This time, the Spartans led 38-17 going into the fourth before the Boilers pulled within 38-31.
Another late interception – this time a pick-six by Darien Harris – sealed the deal and a 45-31 win, but the way another fourth quarter unfolded left senior offensive lineman Connor Kruse scratching his head.
“I wish I could tell you about that,” Kruse said. “All I know is this week’s focus was about finishing strong and we didn’t finish the way we wanted to.”
The Spartans now have been outscored 33-7 in the fourth quarter of their first two Big Ten games, with the lone score being Harris’ 15-yard interception return Saturday.
To clinch the victory last week, it took a Trae Waynes interception. Harris was the savior this week as Purdue quarterback Austin Appleby rolled to his right and put up a pass under pressure from Calhoun and linebacker Ed Davis.
It fell into the waiting hands of Harris, who said he played it as Michigan State always plays sprint outs from a quarterback.
”I just played my responsibilities and dropped to my coverage like I normally do, looking for routes behind me to cover,” Harris said. “It just so happened that I saw the DB get him and then the ball in the air and made a play on the ball.”
It was a fortunate play at an opportune time for Michigan State after Purdue mounted a fourth-quarter comeback on the back of Akeem Hunt. The Boilers running back hit from 52 yards on a fourth-and-2 to pull Purdue within 38-24 with 8:49 left in the game after Connor Cook was intercepted by safety Frankie Williams at the Purdue 21.
Cook said he did not look at Williams coming underneath and focused on the cornerback.
“In a critical situation like that, we are in field-goal range, I gotta be looking inside and not just at the cornerback and maybe throw it away,” he said.
After Hunt’s touchdown, the Michigan State offense went three-and-out, but coach Mark Dantonio called for a fake punt as the snap went to Lawrence Thomas, who was stuffed by the Boilermakers.
“Fakes are about executing and about timing,” Dantonio said. “I thought the time was right. The execution didn’t happen the way we wanted it, but I thought it was set up right.”
With the ball at the MSU 30, the Boilers went to work as a pair of plays moved them down to the 18 where they went for a little trickery with a double-reverse pass, which resulted in pass interference on Darian Hicks in the end zone. Hunt ran it in from two yards out for to pull within a touchdown of the Spartans with 6:19 to go.
A Michigan State punt to the Purdue 5 gave the Boilermakers the chance to make a drive to tie or win the game, but Harris ended any hope with his interception.
Early the Spartans jumped out to a 21-3 lead as Cook connected with Tony Lippett for his eighth receiving touchdown of the year on MSU’s first possession. Lippett finished with 138 yards on seven receptions. After a field goal for Purdue, the Spartans came back with a two-yard Nick Hill touchdown run and a two-yard Cook pass to Josiah Price for a 21-3 lead.
The Spartans’ defense made adjustments to the Purdue bubble-screen attack that gave the Boilermakers success in the first half, allowing just 11 yards in the third quarter.
“We knew they were really calling us on bubble passes, so we wanted to go in and find a different way to play that, specifically with myself,” Harris said. “ I take credit on the bubble plays because I know those are attacking me and they were getting me in the first half.
”Coach (Pat) Narduzzi was able to come up with a different way for us to play it and it was successful.”
The offense also clicked through the third as Cook connected with Aaron Burbridge for a 13-yard touchdown and Hill added a four-yard touchdown run to give MSU a 38-17 lead that looked safe.
“I thought our team responded in the second half, came out fast in the second half and scored 21 points,” Dantonio said. “Then it was back to the same old, trying to hold off a tough team.”
So the Spartans will get back to the drawing board on fixing some fourth-quarter issues, but with the solace of being 2-0 in Big Ten play and having moved to 5-1 overall on the season.
“We just know that we can finish at the end of the day,” Harris said. “It is big for our defense to be able to finish games and win games at the end. We know that defense wins championships.
”No matter what goes on in the first three quarters, we know the fourth quarter has to be ours.”