Kurt Hess found Jelani Berassa over the middle for a short touchdown pass in the second quarter, and suddenly, Youngstown State had a chance to tie the game against its heavily favored host.
Then the extra point was blocked, Michigan State scored a quick touchdown — and the Penguins never recovered.
B.J. Cunningham caught nine passes for 130 yards and a touchdown, and the No. 17 Spartans beat Youngstown State 28-6 on Friday night. Berassa's touchdown made it 7-6, but that was as close as the Penguins came.
"I think we showed tonight that we can play together," Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford said. ''I think we have a chance to have a good football team as long as we get the mistakes corrected, continue to work hard every day and do the things you need to do to be a good football team."
Youngstown State, of the Football Championship Subdivision, went 3-8 last season but led at some point in every game. The Penguins never took the lead against Michigan State.
Hess threw for 126 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
"I think we were very prepared," Hess said. ''We saw a lot of looks in preparation two weeks prior to this game, and our defense helped us out a lot with what they threw at us. We didn't execute poorly, but we need to get better."
Kirk Cousins threw for 222 yards for Michigan State, which tied for the Big Ten title last season but wasn't especially dominant against the Penguins. The Spartans led 14-6 in the third quarter when Cousins threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Cunningham, who held on despite tight coverage in the back of the end zone.
Le'Veon Bell added his second 3-yard touchdown run of the game to make it 28-6 in the fourth.
Cunningham has 148 career receptions, equaling Matt Trannon's school record.
Michigan State began the game on a heartwarming note when offensive lineman Arthur Ray Jr. took the field, four years after being treated for cancer in his left leg. Ray underwent chemotherapy shortly after signing with the Spartans in 2007, and a subsequent infection postponed his comeback until now.
Coach Mark Dantonio indicated earlier this week that Ray wasn't able to practice much because of the stress on his leg, but he was in at left guard for Michigan State's first offensive play of the season. The Spartans called a pass, Ray blocked effectively, then he came out of the game.
Offensive lineman Joel Foreman, a Michigan State captain, had given up his spot so Ray could start.
"Words can't describe it," Foreman said. ''He's not only an inspiration to me, but to the entire team. It's not something I did, it's all Arthur."
The underdog Penguins held their own in the first half, controlling the ball for 19:36 thanks to a 14-8 advantage in first downs. After a scoreless opening quarter, Michigan State finally took the lead on a 6-yard touchdown run by Larry Caper.
The Spartans forced a punt, but Keshawn Martin muffed it, and Youngstown State then drove 62 yards in nine plays. Hess threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Berassa, but the Penguins couldn't tie it. Michigan State's Jerel Worthy blocked the extra point.
Cousins found Cunningham on a deep pass over the middle for a 55-yard gain on the Spartans' next offensive play, and Bell scored on a 3-yard run to make it 14-6.
"There are no moral victories," Wolford said. "You either win or you lose. We're on the short end of the stick. Hopefully one of these days we're going to win one of these games."