Holding the lead after three quarters Saturday was a pleasant change for the Gophers, who hadn't accomplished that feat yet this season. But the goal is to be ahead after four quarters, and the Gophers missed that opportunity by wearing down, or simply losing effectiveness, in the final period.

A week earlier, they owned the fourth quarter, holding the ball for all but 95 seconds to score a pair of touchdowns and rally past Iowa. But in East Lansing, Mich., on Saturday, the Gophers had four possessions and failed to score, enabling Michigan State to do the rallying, finally holding on for a 31-24 victory.

Gophers coach Jerry Kill suggested that fatigue might have played a role in his team's fourth-quarter fizzle, particularly after playing such a physical opponent.

"We did something today we've never done -- we snapped the ball 74 times to their 62," Kill said. "Offensively, we haven't done that. So maybe there's a reason we ran out of gas a little bit."

The Gophers held the ball as long or longer than Michigan State in all four quarters, finishing with 34:28 of possession time. But whatever the reason, their production waned in the final period, after they built a 24-21 lead after three.

It didn't help that their field position, a handicap all day, was particularly bad in the fourth quarter. Their four drives started on their own 28-, 14-, 6- and 10-yard lines.

"The biggest thing -- it's on top of my head and I can't get it out right now -- is field position," Kill said after a game in which the Gophers' average drive began 77.5 yards from the end zone and the Spartans' began 61.1 yards away. "Field position just killed us."

So did their inability to move. The Gophers had a pair of three-and-outs. They got to midfield on a drive before turning the ball over on downs. And given a final chance to drive for a tying score, they moved into Spartans territory in eight plays, including a 24-yard reception to tight end John Rabe, before being undone by a mixup on receiver Da'Jon McKnight's route, resulting in an interception.

"I was very confident. I thought we were going to get it to overtime," Kill said of the two-minute drill. "I was confident until the last play."

That play was snapped with 15 seconds remaining and the Gophers 45 yards away from the end zone. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover called a medium-length pass to McKnight, hoping to pick up roughly half the distance.

"I thought we would get two shots [at a touchdown]. We could run the Hail Mary at the end, but we had 15 seconds," Kill said. "We had two shots, and I wish we'd have taken one at the end, but we had the four-vertical [receivers] concept, so I thought we could get closer and take a closer shot."

But McKnight turned toward the middle, just as quarterback MarQueis Gray anticipated his cut outside. Safety Trenton Robinson took advantage with his second interception of the day.

"MarQueis thought he was going to peel outside," Kill said. "They made a good play."

Michigan State had made a few others in the quarter. Gray enjoyed the best passing day of his career (19-for-32 for 295 yards), but in the fourth quarter he was only 5-for-13 for 61 yards. By comparison, Kirk Cousins went 4-for-5 for 27 yards in the fourth quarter.

The Gophers' running game slowed at the end, too. They ran 10 times for 42 yards, but two of those were Gray scrambles, picking up 19 and 11 yards. When Gray handed off, the numbers were four carries for 10 yards.

"We've just got to do a better job of finishing," Gray said. "It's a matter of a couple of plays."

True, and the Gophers still had plenty to feel good about. They converted seven of 15 third downs, their second-best percentage of the year and the first time all season they have been more successful at it than their opponents.

"Those [receivers], they're the reason we kept the ball moving along," Gray said. "They were finding open gaps. As I was sprinting around, they were doing a great job of finding space."

Phil Miller • phil.miller@startribune.com