QB guru Whitfield: MSU’s Cook will be the difference

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — When Connor Cook walks into Michigan Stadium on Saturday, the moment will not be too big for him.

At least, that’s the way George Whitfield feels about it. The quarterback guru who will be part of the “College GameDay” broadcast from Ann Arbor has spent plenty of time with Cook over the past couple of years, and he sees a seasoned player leading No. 7 Michigan State.

“He’s been in a lot of big-time battles,” Whitfield said on Friday. “He’s Rose bowl-tested, Cotton Bowl-tested he’s been in some Big Ten championship games. He’s been in a lot of dogfights. I just saw the stat, he’s the career leader right now in wins, but it’s not like they’ve been rolling by 40 each week, so there’s quite a few games he’s had to dig them out of a ditch and battle all the way through four quarters. It has not been downhill, which is a testament to how tough he is and how tough that team is.

“This certainly will be a big opportunity for him. Just talking to him the last couple of days, I know he’s excited about it, but I don’t know if it supersedes the challenges he’s already had. He’s suited for tomorrow.”

Cook is 29-3 as the starter for Michigan State, the best in school history, and is 2-0 against Michigan. This will be his first time as the Spartans’ starter at Michigan Stadium.

No. 12 Michigan (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) enters the game with all the momentum. It is a heavy favorite and has the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation. Michigan State (6-0, 2-0), on the other hand, has not looked dominant at any point this season and is dealing with multiple injuries.

But Cook’s talent and experience could be the one thing the Wolverines can’t match.

“The biggest difference in the game, Connor Cook is really good,” ESPN analyst David Pollack said. “People have slept on him on for a number of years. I think he’s first-round draft pick-type good. Now does he make some bonehead decisions? Absolutely. Sometimes I’m watching the tape and just going, ‘Dude, seriously? You’re a third-year starter, you can’t do that.’ But he’s got some really good talent and some receivers to make plays to.

“For them, if they can protect him, he can make some plays. He can be the difference in the game, but that’s assuming he can throw and stay upright.”

Michigan State has allowed only two sacks this season, but Cook was hit multiple times last week in the victory at Rutgers, and with the offensive line ailing, it could be a problem against Michigan.

Even with the increased pressure, Cook broke out for a career-high 367 yards passing last week. While he threw four touchdown passes in the win over Air Force, last week was one of the few times Cook has looked sharp. In the winning, fourth-quarter drive, Cook threw a strike to a tightly covered R.J. Shelton on third-and-9 to keep the drive going. More of that will likely be necessary against the Michigan secondary.

Whitfield said Cook, who has thrown 12 touchdown passes and only two interceptions, hasn’t been his best, and that should make opponents nervous.

“I’m sure he’s not where he wants to be, either, except for win-loss column, which should be pretty scary for Michigan State opponents coming down the line,” Whitfield said. “That offense hasn’t been its best, he hasn’t been his best yet, and yet they’ve been winning. As soon as he does settle down — and they’ve sustained a lot of injuries, so he’s welcoming new guys in the huddle and for the most part he hasn’t looked Connor Cook-esque — but he hasn’t made a ton of mistakes, either.

“It will be exciting to see him start to hit his stride and get going. There’s a reason why they’re a top team in the country and they still have a lot of room on offense to fill in to who they actually are.”