East Lansing — Among surprises Michigan State dropped on Ohio State Saturday, beyond a 17-14 final score, was MSU’s quarterback shuttle of Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry.
This wasn’t by design. The Spartans had to shelve their top gun, Connor Cook, because of a bad right shoulder. And what should have made a 14-point underdog even more stressed instead became part of Saturday’s drama at Ohio Stadium, which was good enough to have pulled the heaviest television audience for any college football game this season.
It was tough to measure precisely the effect O’Connor and Terry had on Ohio State.
The safe conclusion is to say: precious little. At least compared with what MSU would have gotten from Cook, who probably is the best quarterback in terms of skill and performance in MSU history and who figures to be grabbed in the first round of next spring’s NFL draft.
But the other guys were solid. They gave the Buckeyes a different look. It wasn’t helpful when an OSU team already having its troubles at the line of scrimmage now had to deal with the added wrinkle two back-up QBs presented. They could bite off yardage with their feet, sometimes because OSU had to guard against that ever-bothersome offensive scheme, the option. Flipping a pitch to a running back was simply one more arrow in MSU’s quiver with O’Connor and Terry under center.
As far as straight statistics suggest, O’Connor and Terry were nothing special: 50 yards net rushing yardage, combined, on 16 carries. They were 8-for-16 passing for 91 yards.
But they kept drives going on a day when the Spartans killed OSU on the clock, 38 minutes to 21 minutes of possession.
They also delivered to coach Mark Dantonio’s team a subtle bonus. Beyond helping shove MSU into a possible Big Ten championship game and four-team national playoff, O’Connor and Terry might have made MSU’s 2016 quarterback transition less daunting.
Cook will be gone in a few weeks. The Spartans will break in a new man, or men, next September. O’Connor and Terry should be part of a mix that could also involve redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke.
Dantonio acknowledged as much during Tuesday’s news conference at Spartan Stadium. He knew what he’d gotten Saturday: a magnificent victory, and also a testament to how MSU’s football model has been built.
“There is probably no place players grow more than at quarterback,” he said, adding that the “pressures” of playing the most complex position on the field, and on the road “in a game that had so much meaning behind it, makes our program stronger.”
One way in which Dantonio’s wizardry can be appreciated is that he has assembled team depth. Not only in quantity, but quality.
One example, apart from quarterback, was on display Saturday. MSU used four running backs against the Buckeyes, none inferior.
Quarterback, though, can be unforgiving for any team that tries to win with one man. When Cook’s shoulder ached during pregame drills and he was yanked, Dantonio summoned O’Connor and Terry. The coach knew he was at least safe in fundamental ways. Neither would be overwhelmed by Ohio State’s defense or by its home field and withering crowd noise.
That the Spartans’ offensive line, finally healthy, bulldozed the Buckeyes for most of four quarters gave a pair of back-ups an incalculable lift. But they made plays, whether it was O’Connor tossing a completion (7 of 12 for 89 yards and a touchdown) or, as lethally, O’Connor or Terry prancing through the line to keep a drive kicking, sometimes with a running back sucking away a defender because of the capacity for a quarterback pitch.
“Yeah, Connor can run the option, too,” said Dave Warner, MSU’s co-offensive coordinator. “But these guys (O’Connor and Terry) have a little more dimension. They’re a bit niftier.”
Brad Salem, the Spartans’ quarterback coach, agreed with Dantonio that having two back-up quarterbacks play well “in a game of that magnitude” was one way to realize a future, if unintended, dividend from Saturday’s theatrics.
Of course, MSU’s followers also appreciate the occasional pass. It is why they and MSU’s coaches so love Cook. He throws a terrific ball. O’Connor and Terry aren’t matches there, although Salem says all you need to do is watch practices to more appreciate a pair of skill sets.
“Both have strong arms,” Salem said. “The accuracy by Tyler is really impressive. And Damion — he has a big arm.”
It’s unknown if Dantonio will need either or both Saturday against Penn State in what could, if MSU wins, send the Spartans into the Big Ten championship game.
What is known was evident Saturday at Ohio State. The Spartans can win without Cook. They can win with replacement parts at quarterback. They win because they’re good, and deep, and adaptable, which is a reality to which the Buckeyes will lamentably attest.