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East Lansing — The last time Connor Cook played Iowa, he remembers feeling nervous.

It's hard to imagine now, Michigan State's career leader in victories and leading his team into its third Big Ten championship game in three seasons, being nervous at any point.

But that game was in 2013. It was the Big Ten opener, the first for Cook as the starting quarterback.

"I remember being extremely nervous," Cook said Monday. "Iowa is a great atmosphere playing there and they're just a great team. … Going in and playing at Iowa is a very hostile environment and is a hard place to play and a very hard place to win."

It also should be noted Cook at that point in 2013 was far from the Cook of today. Some wondered if he was the right choice at quarterback. He'd been named the starter in Week 2 after senior Andrew Maxwell struggled in the opener, but Tyler O'Connor, then a redshirt freshman, also was seeing time while the home crowd was often chanting for Damion Terry, then a true freshman.

The quarterback situation seemed far from settled for a team with championship aspirations, and after Cook was pulled late against Notre Dame, Michigan State headed to Iowa after a bye with what seemed to be few answers under center.

Cook, however, knew what he was being told and never wavered in his confidence.

"They told me, three weeks before Iowa, 'Hey, this is your job. Go out there, we're giving you the keys to the car. Don't feel like you gotta press. If you make a mistake don't stress about it. Go out there, we're gonna stay with you so go out there and play. Be confident in yourself, trust yourself and go out there and make plays,' " Cook recalled.

"The main thing they said was just don't be looking over your shoulder; just move forward and go out and be a playmaker."

Cook responded with his best game, throwing for 277 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-14 victory, and he hasn't relinquished his grip on the spot since.

He led Michigan State to a Big Ten championship game victory over Ohio State and a victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Cook was the offensive MVP both games.

"I really feel like his coming-out party was against us in 2013," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said this week. "At that time they were rotating the quarterbacks a little bit and trying to get settled in. And he had played well prior to that game, but I thought he played really well against us. Didn't seem like he missed a pass in that ballgame. And to look back since that time, he's just had a tremendous career."

As Michigan State prepares to face unbeaten Iowa on Saturday in the Big Ten title game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, coach Mark Dantonio reflected on how it all came together for Cook.

Dantonio had taken heat for pulling Cook late against Notre Dame, the only defeat of the season for Michigan State. But he also pointed to that moment as the time when he decided it was time to stick with Cook.

"The week before we had played Notre Dame and that was his first opportunity to go out on a big stage away from home," Dantonio said. "He sort of took off. Up until that point he had kind of played OK. He had a good game the third game but then the Notre Dame game maybe slipped back a little bit. Then we made the decision to go with him full-go and he played outstanding that game. It was a team win, but he played very well."

Now, Cook enters Saturday's matchup as arguably the best quarterback in Michigan State history and a possible first-round pick in the NFL draft.

He looked no worse for wear in the victory over Penn State last weekend after missing the Ohio State game with an injured right shoulder, and Iowa is expecting Cook at his best.

"He's one of the better passers we've seen in recent years," Ferentz said. "I think he and the quarterback at Indiana (Nate Sudfeld) are just classic pocket passers, and I think Connor can also run the ball too and does run it with designed runs or improvisation.

"There are a lot of reasons they're successful, but he's certainly a big part of that."

And it all began one October afternoon against the Hawkeyes.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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