Takeaways from MSU win: QB Cook sparks offense

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

What went right

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook had one of his better games this season, throwing for 357 yards and two touchdowns while engineering a game-winning drive in the final four minutes that gave the Spartans the lead for good. The key play on the drive was Cook’s third-and-9 strike to R.J. Shelton for 29 yards that put Michigan State at the Rutgers 46. From there, LJ Scott took over. While Cook misfired on some passes, completing 23-of-38 passes, he was able to overcome consistent pressure and keep the offense moving, finding Aaron Burbridge a career-high nine times for 146 yards. Scott was also impressive despite not playing in the first half. He had a minor knee problem, but when Madre London went out with a leg injury, Scott stepped in and scored both of Michigan State’s second-half touchdowns. The defense gave up two long drives late in the game, but three sacks were big, including one in the final minute from tackle Malik McDowell. Cornerback Arjen Colquhoun also made up for allowing a touchdown early in the game by knocking away a potential touchdown pass that would have given Rutgers a fourth-quarter lead.

What went wrong

This was a long list and it covered all three phases of the game. Offensively, there were several critical plays in the first half that could have led to points. Burbridge dropped a pass inside the 5-yard line in the first quarter and Cook closed the first half with an interception thrown in the end zone. The defense gave up its share of big plays, including a 72-yard run while it allowed an 11-play drive and a 16-play drive in the fourth quarter that totaled 10 points. The special teams were, once again, anything but. Michael Geiger had another field goal blocked and he is now 5-for-9 on the season. Punter Jake Hartbarger had two punts that totaled 35 yards. The first was thanks to a snap that rolled to him while the second – a 24-yard kick – was all on him. For Michigan State’s final punt of the game, backup quarterback Tyler O’Connor took over and downed the ball at the Rutgers 5-yard line. Throw in a few more injuries to the likes of London, center Jack Allen and cornerback Darian Hicks and there was plenty that went wrong for Michigan State.

Key developments

As it has been for much of the season, the Spartans will have to let the week play out to see how healthy they actually are going into the Michigan game. Tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Josiah Price did not play, but tackle Kodi Kieler did, though he struggled with his injured right knee all night. The line suffered another blow when Allen was hurt, adding another issue to an already thin group. The loss of London could be significant. Delton Williams played for the first time this season and he could quickly join the rotation in the backfield with Scott and Gerald Holmes. The secondary is also worth watching as Michigan State finished the Rutgers game with two cornerbacks with any experience. Colquhoun and Jermaine Edmondson held their own, but behind them are two true freshmen – Josh Butler and Tyson Smith – who coach Mark Dantonio is still hoping he can redshirt. And after being concerned about Hartbarger’s consistency in preseason camp, the insertion of O’Connor to kick could mean Hartbarger will have trouble getting his spot back by next week.

Most telling quotes

Coach Mark Dantonio: “I think the bottom line is we’re winning and we have good practices during the week, and our outlook is positive. But you know, things happen. Things happen and things change all the time. But we’re a 6-0 football team and I keep saying, across the country, you watch what goes on every week, there’s tough games out there and people are struggling and I do believe we’re getting everybody’s best shot. But I’m sure next week will be a great football game.”

QB Connor Cook on the third-down completion to Shelton: “It was just man coverage and he ran a wheel-go. And I just threw it up there for him to make a play and he made it. It was a grown-man play. It's plays like that you see in the NFL, guys going up and over the top and making a play like that instead of waiting for the ball. That was just a helluva play by him.”

LB Riley Bullough: “I just tell guys to don’t get down. Life is gonna hit you with things, no matter if it’s football or outside of football. You got to react to those things and you gotta be able to keep pushing and you can’t put your head down and feel sorry for yourself at any point. We know we’re in a tough situation but we don’t care, we got to keep moving. I think that’s our mentality. We just got to stay strong, keep our chemistry strong and it will be all right.”

DE Shilique Calhoun: “We came up big at the end. I think Malik McDowell had a sack at the end of the game and it just shows if you trust in your teammates, good things can happen. All you can do is do your job. You can't do someone else's job because that's when the defense breaks down. I credit the defense for stepping up at the end and finishing it out.”

Dantonio: “We’ve got guys. We’ve got guys hurt, but it’s, we’re not gonna … excuse my pun, use a crutch, OK? But things happen. Football’s a tough game. So you’re gonna lose some guys, and we’ve got to play through those things, but it makes everybody else around more experienced, and that should pay dividends. We’ll get our guys back, we should get some guys back next week. We’ll see how it rolls.”

What’s next

It didn’t seem like this game would be huge before the season started, but next week’s trip to Ann Arbor for a showdown with Michigan is as big as it gets, big enough that ESPN will be back in the state for College GameDay. The Wolverines come in with all the momentum after three straight shutouts while the Spartans have multiple questions, most surrounding who will be ready to play. Michigan State has won six of the last seven in the series, but this has the potential to be a classic and put one team in prime position in the Big Ten East.