Connor Cook's emergence fuels Michigan State's rise

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Connor Cook remembers one thing about last year's victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game — the kneel down.

There was plenty the Michigan State quarterback could remember.

■He could remember he threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns and was named the game's MVP.

■He could remember the 72-yard strike to Keith Mumphery or the 33-yarder to Tony Lippett.

■He could remember watching Jeremy Langford run 26 yards for a touchdown that put the game away late in the fourth quarter.

But Cook keeps going back to kneeling down, the play that capped a 26-year Rose Bowl drought for Michigan State and dashed the national championship dreams for Ohio State, which hadn't lost in 24 games.

It was a huge moment for the Spartans, but at the same time, it thrust Cook into the spotlight.

He followed that performance with another gem in the Rose Bowl, throwing for 332 yards and two touchdowns, and was named offensive MVP.

And through eight games this season, Cook is second in the Big Ten in passing yards per game and passing efficiency and is now being asked about his thoughts on entering the NFL a year early.

"Going into the game last year, Connor Cook didn't really put anything exceptional on film," Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. "Then when he played us he had a really good game and has kept improving since then. I'd say he's a better quarterback from when I watched him on film last year."

It's been quite the rise for the guy was the backup to start last season and didn't really lock down the No. 1 spot until he opened Big Ten with a solid performance in a victory over Iowa.

But the progression has been consistent.

He finished last season with 2,755 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. This season, he has thrown for 1,868 yards, 17 touchdowns and five interceptions.

But what has been most impressive — along with his ability to move in the pocket, throw on the run and take off with the ball — has been the fact he wins.

In 21 games with Cook as the starter, Michigan State is 19-2. The losses were last year at Notre Dame and this season at Oregon.

"That's the combination of a lot of things," Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. "It's a great run game, great play-action passing, really good blocking and also a guy that knows what to do with the football.

"He takes some chances, too. He threw some balls in there against us last year that still, I'm like 'Wow.' You see some of those shots on film, too. He has confidence in what he's doing. He has confidence in his receivers. That's why they are where they are offensively."

Where they are is first in the Big Ten and ninth in the nation in total offense (515.2 yards) and second in the Big Ten and fifth in the nation in scoring offense (45.5 points). The Spartans also are third in the conference in passing (260.4 yards).

In fact, Michigan State is one of three FBS teams (Mississippi State, Marshall) to average more than 250 yards passing and rushing.

"They are a lot more consistent with the run and pass," Bennett said. "Last year they were better running the ball. They are a lot more even this year and it's important we shut down the run so they have to pass because our secondary is a lot better than last year."

There's little argument there, considering Ohio State is in the top 10 in the nation in total defense, a significant improvement over last season

Cook understands the difference.

"It's a little different, depending on the coverages," he said. "They mix it up a little bit with the fronts, trying to go odd fronts here and there. … Their defensive line is very, very good, great linebackers, guys that are active, guys that are fast and they got guys that are strong in the secondary as well, so it's a good defense."

Ohio State at Michigan State

Kickoff: 8 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: ABC/WJR

Records: No. 13 Ohio State 7-1 (4-0 Big Ten), No. 7 Michigan State 7-1 (4-0)

Line: Michigan State by 3½

Did you know? ESPN's "College GameDay" will make its seventh trip to East Lansing.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau