East Lansing — It took less than a minute Friday night for Michigan State to prove it wasn’t overlooking its first opponent of the 2014 season, but it took the same amount of time for fear to take over.
Quarterback Connor Cook, on the fourth offensive play of the Spartans’ season, scrambled to his right and lofted a perfect pass to Tony Lippett down the right sideline. Lippett hauled it in without breaking stride and dove into the end zone for a 64-yard touchdown just minutes into the matchup with Jacksonville State.
It was the first touchdown of many for the No. 8 Spartans in their 45-7 victory at Spartan Stadium.
But what really drew the attention of 75,127 fans was the fact Cook was slow to get up then hobbled to the sidelines. Replays showed on the big screen and the crowd gasped, then booed as they saw Jacksonville State safety Folo Johnson hit Cook in the front of his left knee, which buckled in the opposite direction.
It appeared that the promising season the Spartans potentially had on tap was quickly disappearing, only one series into the first game.
“Oh no,” coach Mark Dantonio said when asked what he first thought. “It looked pretty ugly.”
Cook, too, admitted he was nervous after first taking the hit.
“I think there was so much adrenaline going on, first series of the game,” Cook said. “The game was going so fast. Initially I got up and I walked a little bit and the trainers told me to take a knee or sit down, but it was frightening.
“I haven’t really gotten hit like that in a while. It’s been almost a year, but I’m doing all right so we’re good.”
So when Cook trotted on to the field for the second offensive series, the crowd breathed a sigh of relief and it didn’t take long for the junior quarterback to show just how good he was.
After Jeremy Langford picked up 2 yards on first down, the Jacksonville State defense found itself in a state of confusion. Lippett was uncovered and Cook found him, connecting with Lippett who then waltzed 71 yards for the touchdown that gave the Spartans a 14-0 lead barely four minutes into the game.
“The thing about Connor is that he is resilient,” Dantonio said. “He came back and played very effectively.”
He was effective, indeed, and nearly perfect. Cook finished 12-for-13 for 285 yards and three touchdowns while Lippett, the fifth-year senior, had four catches for a career-high 167 yards and two touchdowns.
The Spartans piled up 393 yards of total offense in the first half, finishing with 565. It was the first time Michigan State had gone past the 300-yard mark in the opening half since the 2011 Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin when the Spartans had 317 yards.
“(I was) very pleased, especially in the first half,” offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “We came out a little bit flat in the second half and didn’t perform up to our expectations, but we obviously provided some fireworks early on. That’s a good feeling. That’s what people expected from us and that’s what we expected of our offense. I think we picked up where we left off last year. It’s going to keep getting harder and harder, but we’re very pleased with where we’re at right now.”
The offensive performance was in stark contrast to the Spartans of a year ago, who took almost the entire non-conference portion of the schedule before the offense found its way. But once the Big Ten season got going, so did Cook, who threw for better than 300 yards in both the conference title game and the Rose Bowl.
On Friday night, even with the injury scare, Cook showed no signs of slowing down as the Spartans were rolling early and often.
Jacksonville State could do little to slow the Michigan State attack as the Spartans led 21-0 by the end of the quarter thanks to a 17-yard pass from Cook to AJ Troup, whose first career reception resulted in a score.
Michigan State pushed the lead to 28-0 early in the second quarter on a 17-yard run from fifth-year senior Nick Hill and made it 35-0 on an 8-yard run from Hill. Kicker Michael Geiger tacked on a 35-yard field goal as time expired to make it 38-0 at halftime.
“You can see why they won the Rose Bowl last year,” Jacksonville State coach John Grass said. “They’re every bit as good as advertised, no doubt. Just a solid football team. They didn’t play mistake free, but they played well. They’re well coached, they’ve got great players and they make plays. They take advantage when you mess up.”
Cook and many of the regulars on offense took the second half off.
Sophomore Tyler O’Connor stepped in for Cook and led Michigan State’s final scoring drive, a nine-play, 81-yard effort that was sparked by a 32-yard strike from O’Connor to tight end Josiah Price and was finished with a 3-yard run from O’Connor.
Redshirt freshman Damion Terry took the controls for the fourth quarter, completing one pass for 13 yards and running five times for 21 yards.
Jacksonville State managed to find some life in the second half behind backup quarterback Max Shortell. The Minnesota transfer was efficient throwing the ball and hit Markis Merrill for a 9-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.
Aside from a 32-yard pass play on the first play of the game, that was about it for the Gamecocks against the revamped Michigan State defense, which was nearly as good as the offense in the first half. The Spartans held the Gamecocks to 89 total yards, including just seven on the ground in the opening 30 minutes.
Kurtis Drummond, Darian Hicks and Nick Tompkins each had interceptions while Ed Davis had 1.5 sacks. Demetrius Cooper and Shilique Calhoun recorded a sack each while Darien Harris, Riley Bullough and Montez Sweat each were credited for a half sack.
“It’s only the first game, you have to play things out,” Dantonio said. “We got out of the box and were able to play a lot of different players and see what they were able to do, especially on the defensive end. We had some untested guys on that side of the ball, so we played our twos for most of the second half. We played a lot of people on defense. You are going to make mistakes when that happens, but that is how you get better. There is no substitute for game experience.
“We are going to move on. We have to get better as a football team, and that is what we are going to try and do every single football game.”