EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Le'Veon Bell rushed for a career-high 253 yards and a touchdown but No. 21 Michigan State didn't feel much like celebrating after the Spartans struggled to put away winless Eastern Michigan.
Trailing for most of three quarters, Michigan State (3-1) beat the Eagles 23-7 on Saturday -- a less than satisfying tuneup for next week's Big Ten opener against Ohio State.
It left coach Mark Dantonio repeating "Next question" at a contentious postgame news conference.
"We need to be more consistent in what we're doing and execute better," he said. "And that's basically all around our football team. That's the message that was delivered at halftime."
Dan Conroy kicked three field goals for the Spartans, who had failed to score a TD for more than seven quarters before Andrew Maxwell hit tight end Dion Sims on a 10-yard pass with 7:19 left.
"What you've got to do to improve is catch the ball," Dantonio said after his receivers dropped six more passes, a lingering problem from last week's 20-3 loss to Notre Dame. "I mean throw and catch -- protect, throw and catch."
Maxwell was 16-for-29 for 159 yards and wasn't sacked or intercepted. But Michigan State struggled mightily until he finally found Sims three times for 73 yards in the fourth quarter.
"Everybody realized that the way we played in the first half wasn't going to cut it," Maxwell said. "We just looked at all of the opportunities we missed. We didn't feel like it was anything Eastern Michigan threw at us that we couldn't handle."
The Spartans finished with a 428-183 edge in total offense. Bell carried 36 times in the sixth-best rushing performance in school history and also took over as his team's primary punt returner in the second quarter.
"We've just got to make those plays when guys are dropping balls or have turnovers," Bell said. "We've got to eliminate them. We've got talented guys on our side. Those guys just have to make those plays."
The Eagles (0-4) had been beaten 54-16 at Purdue last Saturday and came as close as they ever have to a ranked team, equaling a 16-point loss at Ball State in 2008. This time, they led 7-6 until 1:11 was left in the third quarter.
Tyler Benz made his first start at quarterback for Eastern Michigan and was 13-for-26 for 137 yards and a touchdown. He hit Donald Scott for a 23-yard score late in the second quarter to give his team the lead. But Scott dropped what would have been a 44-yard TD in the fourth quarter.
"I liked him out there," Eagles coach Ron English said of Benz's performance in place of Alex Gillett. "I liked his poise against a hell of a defense. And I'll take that all day long."
Conroy opened the scoring in the second quarter with a 35-yard field goal, cut the deficit to 7-6 with a 44-yarder early in the third quarter and put his team ahead to stay with a 35-yarder.
Michigan State defensive end William Gholston was held out until the second play of the second half for missing too much practice time. And tackle Tyler Hoover was sidelined with a calf injury. Still, the Spartans made just enough plays on defense until the offense arrived.
"We did a lot of good things," English said. "We're fighting the same thing. We give up two drives where the guy doesn't cover the tight end. Two separate guys don't do what they're coached to do."
Michigan State's defense held its fourth straight opponent to 300 yards or less. But it wasn't able to force a turnover for the second straight week until Denicos Allen knocked the ball away from Javonti Greene and Jairus Jones recovered at the Eagles 36 in the third quarter.
The Spartans held Eastern Michigan to 2-for-14 success on third down, much like the 1-for-14 conversion rate Notre Dame had last Saturday. The Eagles managed just 46 rushing yards, 1.6 per attempt.