Connor Cook bounced back from an early-season benching to lead MSU to the Rose Bowl. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
Before it gets really good, usually it gets really rough. Before most teams wear championship caps and lift heavy hardware, there are moments that stir doubt.
In those moments, someone has to see what no one else can. And if there’s a thread that brought the Spartans all the way to Pasadena, that’s what it is — Mark Dantonio saw something others didn’t, in his team and in his quarterback.
Before Michigan State churned out a remarkable 12-1 record and a Rose Bowl meeting with Stanford, there were dulled expectations with no leader on offense. But Dantonio didn’t buckle in the aftermath of a 7-6 season, and again in the aftermath of a wrenching late-game decision. The Spartans have only one blemish on their record, but maybe without the blemish, there is no bloom.
In the early 17-13 loss at Notre Dame, Dantonio pulled Connor Cook before the final drive, a move that defied one of his trusted tenets — finish the job. Cook didn’t get to do it, and there was growing concern Michigan State’s unstable offense would render moot its fabulous defense. Would Dantonio go back to Andrew Maxwell, or leap to freshman Damion Terry, or stay the course with Cook?
Sometimes a coach sees more because he knows more. Players still talk with awe of Dantonio’s declaration at the team banquet last season that “they would be the ones” to bring the program back to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 26 years. It’s easier to speak of faith than to show it, and Michigan State’s season could have gone either way following the loss to Notre Dame, depending upon where Dantonio placed his trust.
Cook was anointed only after he was harshly challenged, which basically is the story of this team.
“It was stressful when you’re being rotated in with two other quarterbacks, not knowing when you’re going to get yanked,” Cook said. “I know I started to feel a lot more comfortable once the coaches said, ‘You’re the guy, we’re going to go with you.’ … I believed in myself, believed in the team, believed in the coaches, and we knew once we got it going, no one was going to be able to stop us.”
Where it began
Cook’s confidence rocketed and the season turned with a 26-14 victory at Iowa. Suddenly, the Spartans had a quarterback, and gradually that led to more sure-handed production from their receivers, and eventually they found a pounding running back in Jeremy Langford.
Now when they suffer a blow, you don’t expect them to cave. When linebacker Max Bullough was suspended on the eve of the trip to California, it was crushing and troubling, and then it simply became something else to overcome.
“We’ve had things that have disappointed us in the past, and we rally and close ranks and move forward,” Dantonio said. “We’re going to protect our people in every sense of the way, the people that are here and the people that aren’t. We’ve always had great chemistry and we’ve won because of chemistry.”
That’s what most championship teams say, but Michigan State boasts compelling evidence, right down to the rollicking postgame locker-room dances. And before the Rose Bowl is played on New Year’s Day, it’s important to note two places the journey began — in Dantonio’s emotional banquet address, and in the numbing wake of the Notre Dame loss.
Cook was 16-for-32 against the Irish, and with the Spartans at their own 33 with 2:11 left, he was pulled for Maxwell. After three incompletions and a scramble, the game was lost. Cook wasn’t happy and met with Dantonio and co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner and was assured the juggling was over. From that point, he improved almost weekly and finished with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions.
You know what else happened? The Spartans began to believe they could win without their defense making every big play. Langford began a streak of eight straight 100-yard games, capped by 128 in the Big Ten title victory over Ohio State.
“Maybe even before the Notre Dame game, we sort of wanted (Cook) to be the guy,” Warner said. “After that game, we said, well, we need to let him finish.”
The quarterback carousel was over, which is never easy when the presumptive starter, Maxwell, is a senior. Dantonio doesn’t always make the easy decision or the right one, but he generally makes decisive ones.
The coaches liked Cook’s mobility and size and now love his easy-going leadership skills. The sophomore is considered one of the funniest guys on the team, although nothing seemed humorous three months ago.
“There were times where I was like, this is really, really hard and I’m struggling,” Cook said. “No matter what you say about us as a team, I think we’re very, very mentally strong. …This is a great platform against an amazing team in Stanford to showcase what we can do as an offense, and really get us on the map even more than we already are.”
It was mapped out by Dantonio a year ago, when he saw the makings of a deep, determined, defense-dominant team. Not everyone saw the same thing, and they sure didn’t see it when Cook was considered perhaps the fourth-best option at quarterback.
But Cook carries the chip of a northern Ohio kid overlooked by the Buckeyes and almost everyone else. So when he was tabbed the guy, it was a little startling, but not the least bit intimidating.
“For Coach D to get up in front of those people and say that at the banquet, and to follow through and actually have it happen, it’s something you see in a movie,” Cook said. “When he said it, did I envision I was gonna be the one? I don’t know. You put stuff like this in your mind, to lead your team to the Rose Bowl, but it’s just stuff I’ve dreamt about as a kid. To be honest, I really never saw this coming.”
It only takes one to see it. And as the Spartans and Cook have shown, it takes everyone to complete it.