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Dallas – Connor Cook hasn't taken a snap in a live game in nearly a month, and it's been the best thing for him.

Michigan State's fifth-year senior quarterback has been battling an injured right (throwing) shoulder since Nov. 14, when he was hurt in a victory over Maryland. He missed the Spartans' game at Ohio State the next week before playing through some discomfort in the regular-season finale against Penn State and in the Big Ten championship game against Iowa.

As No. 3 Michigan State prepared to hit the practice field for the first time on Saturday in preparation for its Cotton Bowl matchup with No. 2 Alabama on Thursday, Cook said the time off has been absolutely vital.

"(It) did everything," he said before Michigan State's practice at AT&T Stadium. "A lot of rest. That's the main thing. When you have an injury and stuff, yeah, you can rehab it. You can ice it or whatever, but rest is key. I was able to do that.

"(I) didn't really throw a whole lot. Went home and did some extra rehab stuff, lifted a little bit, strengthened it, and rested. I think it's the best it's felt so far. That's for sure."

In Cook's absence, junior Tyler O'Connor and sophomore Damion Terry teamed up in the victory at Ohio State. Cook was back the next week against Penn State and looked sharp in the win, completing 19-of-26 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns. However, he never really got hit.

That changed in the conference title game as Cook took a shot to the shoulder in the first quarter and admitted he wasn't 100 percent throughout the game, as his velocity noticeably dropped as it progressed.

Time, however, has been valuable, his coach said.

"I think he's doing fine," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "I think he's doing great. Played in a couple of games already, so there shouldn't be any issues there. He's practiced. That's where we're at."

The key will be how Cook reacts when he takes a hit Thursday. If he's able to fight through without any ill effects, the Spartans should be in good shape.

And if Cook's history in big games is any indication, he could be primed for another big one. He's been the spark for Michigan State in each of its last two trips to the Big Ten title game and in the last three bowl games, including rallying from a 20-point deficit to beat Baylor in last year's Cotton Bowl.

Dantonio is expecting more of the same this week.

"Connor Cook has been an outstanding quarterback for us," Dantonio said of Michigan State's all-time winningest QB. "He has played very well on big stages, and we've won on big stages because of that -- because of a lot of different things, but that being one of them. So we have high expectations for him to play well, and I'm sure he does as well. And when your quarterback plays well, you always have a great chance to win."

Michigan State arrived on Friday evening and Saturday's practice was the first of four this week followed by a walk-through on Wednesday.

It will be treated like a standard bowl week, though the big difference this time around is the winner advances to the national championship game.

"There's more on the line, obviously," fifth-year senior center Jack Allen said. "But at the same time, it's still a game and we got to approach it like that -- just do your job. If you beat the guy across from you, you'll be fine."

With so much at stake, the Spartans aren't about to hold back this week.

"We'll do what we need to do to get ready to play," Dantonio said. "And I feel like our guys have rested. We don't want to get anybody hurt. But we need to go hard. I think you need to get your mind right because it's going to be a physical football team that we're playing, so we need to be prepared."

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

Cotton Bowl

Alabama vs. Michigan State

Kickoff: 8 p.m. Dec. 31, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

TV / radio: ESPN / WJR 760

Records: No. 2 Alabama 12-1, No. 3 Michigan State 12-1

Line: Alabama by 9.5

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