September 14, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan State gets its offense cooking just in time

East Lansing — After lightning delays, offensive delays and excitement delays, Michigan State could delay no longer. Its real season starts now, and Mark Dantonio picked a quarterback just in time.

Sophomore Connor Cook is the guy for now, after throwing four touchdown passes in Michigan State’s 55-17 rout of Youngstown State. It’s hard to say one blasting of an FCS foe confirms Cook is the best on the roster, but a choice had to be made, and I’ll say it again — with the Spartans’ superb defense, there’s no sense taking chances with someone risky.

The 3-0 Spartans head to Notre Dame with the quarterback competition over — thankfully, if not permanently. This was a much-needed performance by a much-maligned offense against a much-outmanned opponent. Dantonio didn’t panic and leap for the freshman unknown, because in the ebbs and throws of college football, nothing is more important than minimizing mistakes. Sometimes, just taking care of business is all that’s necessary.

“It was a great day for our offense,” Dantonio said. “Two things were evident to me that were extremely pleasing — we made the difficult catch, we threw the ball with confidence and we had explosive plays. I don’t care who you play against, it’s an indication we grew up a little bit, caught fire a little bit, and provided the spark that hopefully will ignite our offense.”

Two things were evident? Dantonio was so excited to see 547 yards of offense, he listed about a half-dozen things. Hey, it’s understandable. After all the angst, there was relief the Spartans at least can go to Notre Dame with a quarterback who has started a couple of games.

“It’s just reassuring,” Cook said. “This was the first time where I was in and I was the main guy. When you know your coaches believe in you, you know your teammates believe in you, and you believe in yourself, it just makes you a lot more confident and not afraid to make mistakes.”

Order established

At the quarterback position, you can’t have too many Cooks in the kitchen, and Dantonio knows it. He wanted the competition to play out, but early last week, the choice was apparent. Cook was put in a position to shine and that’s what he did, throwing four first-half touchdown passes and completing 15 of 22 against the Penguins. He’s 27-for-49 this season, without an interception.

Cook used variations of “reassured” several times in his news conference, and clearly, this was the time to settle everything down. With a dominant defense, you’d prefer an offense that reassures rather than riles up.

That’s why Dantonio declined to use freshman Damion Terry, although the student section again was chanting his name before Cook took a snap. Dantonio confirmed he’d prefer to redshirt Terry. Redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor played the second half and senior Andrew Maxwell watched, although I still think he’s likely to be the relief guy, if necessary.

Situations change quickly in this goofy game, but Dantonio has options. Just a week ago, Michigan State didn’t have a quarterback and Michigan had an increasingly celebrated one. Today, the Spartans feel a bit more comfortable, and the Wolverines have to feel a bit nervous.

If you want to dismiss the relevance because of the opponent, then you didn’t watch Michigan’s messy 28-24 escape against Akron. Devin Gardner committed four turnovers and showed you can slip from hip to nearly Zipped in a hurry. It works the other way, too.

We’ll see if Cook turns out to be the right guy, but sticking with one guy is the right move by Dantonio. He’s no longer hedging and alternating, definitively declaring, “Connor Cook’s the No. 1 quarterback.”

Big test coming

Cook isn’t a traditional precision passer, but at 6-foot-4, he has a powerful arm and the mobility to create plays. He showed it in flashes when he helped rally Michigan State to a bowl victory over TCU. His crazy-legs running style reminds some of Drew Stanton, although that’s a tad premature.

“Connor played well, ran the ball effectively, made good checks at the line of scrimmage,” Dantonio said. “He’s a big strong physical guy with a rocket arm. Really, the thing he’s lacked is long-term game experience, which he got (Saturday).”

The quarterback competition didn’t really reach the controversy stage, but it wasn’t fully tested, either. It will be tested by the Fighting Irish and it’s always subject to change, but at least Cook is imbued with some confidence. It helped Michigan State’s offensive line looked good against Youngstown State, and Macgarrett Kings Jr. was among the receivers that finally made tough catches.

It also helps not to have quarterbacks lined up in a row, looking to see who’s next.

“We went into this game telling Connor it’s his game,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “I think that helped him from a confidence standpoint, and he seemed to settle in and make plays. Hopefully it’s a taste of things to come.”

This Michigan State season still will be defined by the defense, which is even better than last year’s. But there’s a chance the Spartans aren’t cooked on offense after all, if Cook indeed is ready to take charge.

Spartans coach Mark Dantonio celebrates a first-quarter touchdown with his players on Saturday. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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