Spartans offensive line keeps heat off Cook
East Lansing — A few weeks ago, Michigan State's offensive line was far from a group that seemed on the verge of playing its best football.
Much of the reason for the unit's inconsistent play was obvious — injuries struck early and often. At various points, three of the original five starters missed time. Left tackle Jack Conklin lost two games to a knee injury while center Jack Allen lost a couple with a bad ankle. Right tackle Kodi Kieler missed two full games with a knee injury and was hampered by it much longer.
And after Conklin went out his backup, Dennis Finley, broke his leg.
Needless to say there wasn't a lot of cohesion up front.
But it was coming, and it began last week at Ohio State when the Spartans ran for 203 yards and continued in Saturday's 55-16 victory over Penn State when quarterback Connor Cook wasn't sacked once.
In fact, Cook wasn't even touched.
"Nope," Cook said when asked if he ever felt a Penn State defender.
That's saying something, considering Penn State entered the game leading the nation with 44 sacks. It didn't hurt that Penn State was without defensive end Carl Nassib, who leads the Big Ten with 15.5 sacks.
Still, it was impressive and crucial, considering Cook was coming back from a shoulder injury that kept him out last week against Ohio State.
"We've played a lot of different guys up there and now we're back in sync and again, we've gotten stronger," coach Mark Dantonio said. "They did a great job. We have a great offensive line. I think we've given up 15 sacks all year."
That ranks Michigan State in the top 30 teams in the nation, and the benefactor on Saturday was Cook.
He wasn't sure until late in the week he would even play, but having time in the pocket was crucial as he was 19-for-26 for 248 yards and three touchdowns.
"I didn't get touched once," Cook said. "They did a great job. I thought our O-line played their best game today. They kept me well protected, and blocked very well, and in the run game as well. When I can stand back there with time, and feel safe, it's a pretty good situation."
Heading into next week's Big Ten Championship game against unbeaten Iowa, the front five is feeling good.
"I'd say we're peaking at the right time," Allen said. "We've had guys go down, and people have had to play different positions. I think everybody stepped up on the offensive line, and on the offense kind of helped balance things out. We're starting to gel a little more up front and get used to working next to each other ... but I think it's all coming together."
Last week's victory over Ohio State was a big one for a large chunk of Michigan State's roster that hails from Ohio. It was the same as it is during Michigan week for all the players from Michigan.
On Saturday, it was a big one for seven players from Pennsylvania, and safety Demetrious Cox came up big. The junior from Jeannette, Pa., had one of the biggest plays when he returned a fumble 77 yards for a touchdown.
Fellow safety Montae Nicholson of Monroeville, Pa., said the win was special for several reasons.
"Maybe just a little bit (special)," said Nicholson, who had nine tackles. "Every game is important; every game is special to us. This one was really special, being that it was Senior Day and being that it was the game where our season was on the line, whether we were going to the Big Ten or not. So, it was just a special game for us all in all."
It was the final game at Spartan Stadium for 24 seniors, but it was a tough one for fullback Trevon Pendleton.
The fifth-year senior left the game late in the first half favoring his left leg and did not return.
"It's unfortunate," Dantonio said. "I don't know what the extent is to that, so I don't think it will alter next week, but we'll see."
… Senior wide receiver Aaron Burbridge had six catches for 75 yards and became the 11th receiver in Michigan State history to reach 2,000 yards receiving in his career. He also became just the second player with 150 catches, trailing only B.J. Cunningham (218).
… Dantonio became the first coach in Big Ten history to record five 11-win seasons in a six-year span. Michigan's Fielding Yost and Ohio State's Jim Tressel are the only other Big Ten coaches with four 11-win seasons in a five-year span.