On a team with the nation's best defense, three national award candidates on that side of the ball and a potential All-America punter, Michigan State's Big Ten title hopes likely rest with a player ranked 74th nationally in passing.
The Spartans, after going two weeks into the season still practicing four quarterbacks, finally settled on sophomore Connor Cook.
The 6-foot-4 218-pounder from Hinckley, Ohio, won't necessarily win any beauty contests with his gangly build and loping stride. But he'll be 7-1 as a starter coming to Nebraska on Nov. 16.
“We've got a quarterback who is resilient,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He makes some plays. He's young. He's still growing.”
The growing process got accelerated in last week's 29-6 romp of Michigan.
Late in the first half with the score 6-6 and Cook 5 of 11 passing, he led a 75-yard touchdown drive in 10 plays. Cook completed 5 of 7 passes for 63 yards, including a tight-fit 14-yard touchdown pass with 23 seconds left.
Late in the third quarter, with MSU leading 16-6, Cook fired off-balance into double coverage and was intercepted, giving Michigan some rare hope.
“Stupid play,” Cook said. “Probably shouldn't have thrown it. But you've got to put it behind you and move forward.”
That's exactly what he did after the Spartan defense pushed Michigan back to fourth-and-31.
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Cook broke Michigan's back by leading a nine-play, 68-yard touchdown drive. On third-and-12 at the UM 34, he completed a sparkling 25-yard pass under duress. Cook finished the drive with a 1-yard plunge.
“That's the best I've ever felt playing the game of football,” he said of that drive. “The rivalry, the tradition, the way we physically beat Michigan — it just felt good.”
Cook's contributions are becoming more noticeable. In his eight starts, he has completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and three interceptions.
“Like any quarterback going through his first year as a starter,” MSU co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said, “you're going to have your ups and downs. But he's had a lot more ups than he has downs. Regardless of how he started, he has finished strong.”
Cook said he didn't waver early in the game against Michigan, despite struggling to get settled.
“My main focus was on being poised,” he said. “No matter what was going on, whether early in the game or late in the game, I thought I was resilient, like I have been.”
Being an athlete runs in the family.
Connor's father played football at Indiana, his mother played basketball at Cincinnati and his sister played basketball at Old Dominion.
So competing for the quarterback job this season came naturally. Cook likely will have to fight to keep it next year, with freshman dual-threat standout Damion Terry sitting out as a redshirt.
“I have faith in myself,” he said. “I have full confidence no matter what the situation is.”