Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook has emerged from a benching to become a big key for MSU. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
East Lansing — They spent the first couple weeks of the season trying to find a quarterback. They spent the next couple trying to hide him.
But it’s mid-November now, and if the Spartans are going to take hold of another Big Ten division title and maybe even take a shot at a BCS berth, Connor Cook can’t go unnoticed the next month.
Michigan State’s quarterback has gone from overwhelmed to underappreciated since he stumbled into the starter’s role two months ago. But today’s showdown at Nebraska offers the redshirt sophomore another opportunity — arguably his biggest yet — to assert himself.
“He’s going to have to create, there’s no question about that,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “He’s going to have to deliver, in crunch time — all quarterbacks have to do that — and he’s got to lead his football team.”
He has done some of that already, obviously.
Michigan State’s dominant defense is the reason this team is where it is, on top of the Legends Division with a chance to clinch at least a share of the title with a victory in Lincoln.
But the Spartans have seen steady growth from Cook, and with the run game gaining traction and his receiving corps finally having caught on, there’s reason to believe that can continue.
'Back to basics'
Think back to Michigan State’s first bye week, for starters. Michigan State was coming off a frustrating loss at Notre Dame — its first legitimate opponent after three nonconference patsies — and Cook was wondering where he stood.
He’d been benched for the final drive in South Bend, replaced by fifth-year senior Andrew Maxwell, and despite assurances he was still the No. 1 guy, Cook’s confidence clearly was shaken. As he put it after that loss, “I would’ve wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there in a critical situation like that.”
Now think about how different he sounds exiting the second bye week, with the team riding a five-game winning streak and Cook talking confidently about his role.
“I was coming off a poor performance at Notre Dame,” Cook recalled Tuesday. “So I worked on the fundamentals, went back to the basics, worked on my accuracy, my footwork and all that stuff.”
This week, he said, it was more about film work than footwork. And as trite as it might sound, that’s another positive step in Cook’s evolution as a starter. Viewed by many as the third wheel in the Spartans’ preseason quarterback derby, he’s now firmly behind the wheel.
“I think Connor grows with every experience, like any young quarterback — like any quarterback, period,” Dantonio said. “I think you grow with your experiences. You become more confident, you become more at ease.”
That’s easier to do when you’re backed by the nation’s top-ranked defense, of course. But while the offense squandered too many chances in Michigan State’s last game — that 29-6 dismantling of archrival Michigan — Cook did make some plays that stood out.
■The pump fake and touchdown toss to Bennie Fowler on that post-corner route just before halftime.
■The scrambling 25-yard pass play to Fowler on third-and-12 early in the fourth quarter.
■The 1-yard touchdown run a few plays later that sealed the win for the Spartans, among others.
Afterward, Cook called it “the best I’ve ever felt on the football field.” His coach went a step further, saying, “I think that was something that our players needed to see,” referring specifically to that play where he plowed headfirst into the end zone and then came charging off the field, exhorting the crowd before a celebratory shoulder bump with R.J. Shelton
'A fine line'
What Cook will see today is a defense that mimics the one he faces during practice, albeit with less-impressive results. Nebraska’s blitzing style and press coverage likely will force Michigan State out of its comfort zone. The Spartans have allowed a conference-low seven sacks, but the Cornhuskers lead the Big Ten with 30.
And while their run defense remains suspect — Nebraska allowed 516 yards to Northwestern and Minnesota before stuffing Michigan last week in Ann Arbor — Cook knows he’ll have chances to make plays downfield.
“They’re going to line up in man coverage and try and beat us,” he said. “They’re really, really good at that.”
Cook is hardly a marksman in the pocket: Even after that nearly-perfect day against Illinois, he’s completing 62 percent of his passes in the Big Ten. But he has been good at avoiding turnovers since settling in as the starter, with three interceptions against 13 touchdowns.
And this week, Cook suggested he’s ready to get moving again, utilizing his mobility a bit more as he tries to open things up offensively.
“I remember Coach D saying not trying to create too much (earlier this season), and I think I’ve done a good job of (that),” Cook said. “But then there’s a fine line of not trying to create and creating, so I think I really need to move the ball downfield a little bit with my legs and actually look to run more.”
He can run, sure. But he can’t hide. It’s too late for that now, with too much on the line.