EAST LANSING - In his first game as Michigan State's captain, Joel Foreman gave up his starting spot so a teammate could take the field for one heartwarming play.
Foreman allowed Arthur Ray Jr. to take his place on the offensive line for the beginning of the Spartans' 28-6 win over Youngstown State on Friday night. Four years ago, Ray was treated for cancer in his left leg. He underwent chemotherapy shortly after signing with the Spartans in 2007, and a subsequent infection postponed his comeback until now.
"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."
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Ray's surprising start set the tone, and B.J. Cunningham caught nine passes for 130 yards and a touchdown for No. 17 Michigan State. Cunningham moved into a tie for first on the school's career receptions list, and his 18-yard scoring reception from Kirk Cousins in the third quarter gave the Spartans a 21-6 lead.
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 of the Football Championship Subdivision. Le'Veon Bell scored twice on 3-yard runs.
Cunningham has 148 receptions, equaling Matt Trannon's mark.
"When I'd get to the sideline, people would tell me how many I had," Cunningham said. "A lot of great receivers have come through here. It's a blessing to be a part of that group."
Cousins completed 18 of 22 passes, and Edwin Baker ran for 91 yards for Michigan State.
Youngstown State's Kurt Hess threw for 126 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Michigan State took a big step forward last season, winning 11 games and sharing the conference crown with Wisconsin and Ohio State, but the Spartans ended on a sour note, losing 49-7 to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.
They looked out of sorts at times Friday, committing seven first-half penalties. Michigan State cut down on the infractions in the second half, but there were still some frustrating moments. Dan Conroy missed a 27-yard field goal in the fourth quarter with a horrific shank, kicking the ball low and way to the left after a shaky hold.
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.
"This wasn't Mark Dantonio being a nice guy," Dantonio said. "This was Joel Foreman being selfless."
Foreman, Ray's roommate, had planned the gesture since the spring, but he hadn't told him.
"I had no idea," Ray said. "I found out right before the game. It shows his character, how selfless he is. I've been waiting for this moment a long time."
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 Jelani 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.
Youngstown State went 3-8 last season, although the Penguins led at some point in every game they played. They never took the lead against Michigan State.
"There are no moral victories," Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford said. "You either win or you lose. We're on the short end of the stick."
Cunningham Ties School Record
B.J. Cunningham set career highs with 9 catches for 129 yards against Youngstown State. He now has 148 catches in his career, passing Andre Rison and tying Matt Trannon for the most in school history.