EAST LANSING — Michigan State football appeared ready to take Ohio State into another fourth-quarter fight.

Then Mark Dantonio opted to take a safety instead of punting out of his own end zone with a freshman punter. And everything unraveled from there.

With backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi in the game, the Spartans fumbled on their next two offensive plays. The first was a snap in the end zone that bounced off in-motion receiver Laress Nelson that Ohio State pounced on for a touchdown. The next was a fumbled option pitch from Lombardi to La’Darius Jefferson that the Buckeyes recovered and turned into a field goal.

Those 10 points for No. 8 Ohio State in 3 minutes and 20 seconds proved to be the difference, as the 24th-ranked Spartans suffered a 26-6 defeat Saturday that officially eliminated MSU from its slim chance at sneaking into the Big Ten title game.

That leaves the Spartans (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) playing only for a better bowl spot in the final weeks, starting next Saturday at Nebraska, with game time and TV network to be announced Sunday.

QB problems

Lombardi took over for junior starter Brian Lewerke on the final drive of the first half and moved MSU in for a field goal with 30 seconds left. Lewerke had largely been ineffective with his right shoulder continuing to affect his passes, throwing for 84 yards on 8 of 16 attempts before being lifted on the final drive of the opening half.

Lombardi, a redshirt freshman, stayed in the game in the second half, but the MSU offense consistently got pinned deep in its own territory by Ohio State’s punting game. Four straight drives started at MSU’s 6-yard line or closer to the goal line.

After a safety made it 9-6, a shotgun snap from center Blake Bueter hit receiver Laress Nelson as he was in motion, before the ball ever got to Lombardi. Ohio State’s Dre’Mont Jones pounced on it in the end zone for the touchdown with 14:03 left in the final quarter. Lombardi appeared to hurt his non-throwing hand on the play while trying to get the ball in the end zone.

On the Spartans’ next play, after a touchback on the kickoff, Lombardi’s option pitch bounced off Jefferson, and the Buckeyes’ Johnathon Cooper recovered at MSU’s 15. Blake Haubeil’s 35-yard field goal four plays later made it 19-6, Ohio State.

Lombardi went back to the bench and finished 7 of 19 for 92 yards passing and was MSU’s leading rusher with 49 yards, including a 47-yarder.

Lewerke returned after Lombardi went back to the bench and continued to struggle, finishing 11 of 27 for 115 yards passing.

Cody White caught eight passes for 115 yards for MSU.

Special teams issues

Back to the safety.

With MSU facing fourth down at its own 1, Dantonio opted to have long snapper Ryan Armour heave the snap over the head of true freshman William Przystup, MSU’s fifth punter of the season. That safety made it a 9-6 Ohio State lead with 42 seconds left in the third quarter, and appeared to give MSU a chance to change field position with a kickoff.

But Cole Hahn’s boot went out of bounds, and the Buckeyes got the ball at midfield because of the shorter kickoff position. Then, OSU punter Drue Chrisman pinned MSU at its own 2. That set up the botched shotgun that bounced off Nelson.

The two teams combined for 17 punts. MSU and Ohio State each missed a field goal.

Defense spoiled

The Spartans slowed down the Buckeyes’ high-powered offense for most of the game, finally wilting in the fourth quarter after their own offensive mistakes.

MSU held Ohio State to 347 total yards, with 227 coming from QB Dwayne Haskins and 123 of them on the ground. Detroit Cass Tech grad Mike Weber ran for 104 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown on 22 carries.

The Buckeyes got 84 of their yards in the final quarter.

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Download our Spartans Xtra app for free on Apple and Android devices!

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