Connor Cook was 12-for-13 for 285 yards and three touchdowns against Jacksonville State in last week's opener. (Dale G. Young)
East Lansing — When Connor Cook hobbled to the sidelines minutes into Michigan State’s season-opening victory over Jacksonville State last week, Tony Lippett wasn’t worried.
The fifth-year senior receiver has caught his share of passes from the Spartans quarterback and spent more than a few hours on the practice field with the junior. So when Cook took a shot straight to the left knee from Jacksonville State’s Folo Johnson on the fourth play — a hit that forced Cook’s knee to buckle backward — Lippett was sure Cook wouldn’t miss a snap.
“That was an awful hit but I expect that of him,” said Lippett, who was busy racing to the end zone for a 64-yard touchdown as Cook hobbled toward the sideline. “He is a warrior. He’s not gonna just go down easily and he has a real strong heart for the game. If he can go out there and play, if he can run, if he can make the throws, he’s gonna do whatever he can do to help this team win, and that’s great.”
Cook said he knew fairly quickly the injury wouldn’t keep him from playing when he was able to walk off the field, albeit rather gingerly.
But it didn’t mean his relief over avoiding injury made him feel any better about the play.
“I’ve watched a lot of football growing up,” Cook said Tuesday. “I’ve never seen a dirtier hit than that. The ball was clearly out of my hand for a solid second, or whatever, and the guy closed in on me for another 5 yards and purposely — intentionally — dove at my knees.
“I wasn’t too happy about it, but I’m fortunate it wasn’t worse than it was.”
No. 7 Michigan State is fortunate, as well.
Heading into Saturday’s showdown against No. 3 Oregon, having Cook at the controls is a more comforting thought than if he were on the sideline.
After closing last season with MVP performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl, Cook picked up where he left off, going 12-for-13 for 285 yards and three touchdowns against Jacksonville State.
And while there is plenty of focus on the high-powered Oregon offense, Cook believes the Michigan State offense is just hitting its stride.
“When you’ve got guys like Tony Lippett, AJ Troup, Macgarrett Kings, R.J. Shelton, Keith Mumphery … you want to stack the box and make us check to a pass?” Cook said. “By all means, go ahead and do it. I’m not afraid to check out of a play. If we’ve got to check to a pass, I feel confident enough where I can throw the ball up there and have one of our guys go and make a play.”
It’s worked well enough to draw the praise of the Ducks, one of the favorites to win the Pac 12 and reach the College Football Playoff.
“I don’t like him very much right now,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich joked when asked his impressions of Cook. “He is a tough guy, he has a great command of their offense and what they ask him to do. He has tremendous arm strength and he’s throwing really well.”
Cook’s execution has been hard to critique back to last season, but even though Lippett never doubted his quarterback would return to the game last week, it did provide a spark for the offense.
“I think it just proves that he’s a tough guy and is ready to keep pushing through,” center Jack Allen said. “If he gets hurt, he’s still gonna play for his team and that’s the kind of guy you want.”
Some wondered as camp broke if that leadership existed with Cook. Despite all he had accomplished, he wasn’t named a team captain and was not a member of the leadership council.
Cook admitted it bothered him, but the Spartans insist his leadership always has existed.
“I think he’s been a great leader for us from last spring on,” offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “I think he continues to be, whether he’s a captain or not. I think he’s a leader on our offense and when he steps up in the huddle people take notice.”
Now, with the major injury avoided, Cook will try to keep the momentum moving forward into what could be a defining moment of the season — a moment in which the quarterback likely will play a huge role.
“I’m not focusing on that,” Cook said. “We’re just gonna try and go in there against a big-time opponent, in a big-time environment and big-time atmosphere focused on winning.”
Michigan State at Oregon
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Oregon
Line: Oregon by 13
Records: No. 8 Michigan State 1-0; No. 3 Oregon 1-0
Series: Tied 2-2 (last 1999 — Michigan State won at home, 27-20)