Dallas — No chance, right? There was no chance some unheralded kid from Ohio would become the greatest quarterback in Michigan State history. Just like there was no chance a walk-on would become a premier offensive tackle, or an undersized defensive end would become a big-play star.
No chance, huh? Anyone who still perceives the Spartans that way hasn’t been paying attention. They’ll get their shot against mighty Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, and one of the main reasons they have a chance is the former no-chance quarterback who doesn’t really care what people say or think.
Connor Cook isn’t Michigan State’s only hope, although if his right shoulder is close to 100 percent, he’s the best hope. Cook gives the Spartans their biggest edge at the most important position, and if the upset is to happen, that’s likely where it will start. The Crimson Tide are loaded everywhere, with future NFL players up and down both lines, with a legendary coach in Nick Saban and the Heisman winner in Derrick Henry.
At quarterback, Jake Coker is a solid but unspectacular senior. The difference between Coker and Cook isn’t much phonetically, but it could be significant logically.
Coker is the classic game-manager, throwing for 2,489 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions with a 65.7 completion percentage. Cook is the classic chance-taker, throwing for 2,921 yards, 24 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 56.9 completion percentage. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart compared Cook to the Falcons’ Matt Ryan, and Crimson Tide players actually dropped a Peyton Manning comparison.
It’s hard to properly quantify Cook because his passing numbers don’t always match his winning numbers. He can be an enigma, prone to the occasional ill-advised risk, but it’s usually followed by a huge play. He can be bold and blunt, and also humorous and engaging. NFL draft gurus offer mixed reviews (pegging him anywhere from mid-first to second round) but it doesn’t matter to the Spartans one bit, because they’ve seen how Cook handles the kitchen heat.
“He’s played on big stages and he’s not intimidated,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “Many times the most impressive thing about Connor is, if something goes bad, something catastrophic like an interception for a touchdown, he can move forward. I think that’s what makes a great quarterback. If you dive too deep into your pain, bad things sort of happen.”
No backing down
Cook brushes off pain, from the shoulder to the mind. The Spartans need him at his best, although his best wasn’t needed to beat Ohio State (he was out) and Iowa (he was limited). Alabama is a beast of a different shade.
When asked if he realized how much is pinned on him in this matchup, Cook didn’t hesitate.
“I’m comfortable with it,” he said. “Every game’s gonna come down to the quarterback, every game’s gonna come down to a certain play. Their defense is very big, very talented, very fast. Watching film, it almost looks like an NFL defense.”
The Spartans’ talented offensive and defensive lines can match the Crimson Tide’s physicality, and they form the heart of the team. Cook is the competitive soul, if not the sole soul. Michigan State doesn’t shy from anything, from stating its championship goals or playing man to man and mano-a-mano. Cook personifies that, with one added element — an incredible ability to make the right throw at the right time. If there’s a better passer in the country on third-and-long, please identify him.
The Crimson Tide admit they haven’t faced anyone quite like him. The SEC is about mauling defenses and bruising runners, not about quarterbacks.
“They have a great team, especially the offense,” Alabama cornerback Eddie Jackson said. “(Cook) has a strong arm, he’s accurate. He’s a big guy, he’s long, and he’s a very real deep threat.”
That could be a very real factor. Alabama’s defense is so dominant, it leads the nation in stopping the run and sacking the quarterback. But if it has a vulnerability, it’s the deep pass, as Mississippi showed in Alabama’s only loss, 43-37.
Cook is 34-4 as a starter, which is amazing to most, even him. It doesn’t seem shocking now after all the big-stage triumphs, but the beginning was humbling. In that sense, he isn’t much different than several uniquely motivated Spartans, including star tackle Jack Conklin, the former walk-on, and under-recruited sack-master Shilique Calhoun.
Cook came to Michigan State as someone Ohio State didn’t want, and when he arrived in East Lansing and saw the savvy starter, he wondered if he could do the job.
“When I looked at Kirk Cousins, I said I’d be lucky to start one game here,” Cook said. “Coming out of high school, I couldn’t tell you what a cover-two was. The way Kirk carried himself off the field, his work ethic, not just doing the bare minimum but throwing with his receivers all the time, that’s what I took from him.”
It’s not just the arm, as Cousins has shown leading Washington to the playoffs, as Cook has shown with steady improvement amid steady scrutiny. He’s developed a rapport with receiver Aaron Burbridge and others, and an uncanny ability to rebound from a bad situation, whether it’s an injury or a fourth-quarter deficit.
Cook’s teammates praise his leadership, in case anyone wants to ask yet again why he isn’t a captain. The Spartans say they’re so heavy with leaders — beyond senior captains Jack Allen, Calhoun and Darien Harris — it’s not an issue. Some, such as ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, have made Cook’s demeanor an issue. It surfaced again after Michigan State beat Iowa and Cook snatched the MVP trophy on the podium from Archie Griffin.
It looked impolite and Cook apologized, but to judge him on a two-second clip is silly. And it’s not that simple. Cook and the Spartans play with a straightforward abrasiveness that can get misconstrued. They’re generally charismatic off the field, and Cook can be as bright as anyone.
In fact, that MVP trophy that stirred such a tempest? It sits in the offensive line’s meeting room, given to them because Cook knew they deserved it.
“He’s not a selfish guy trying to get trophies to put up in his house,” Conklin said. “He’s about the team, about winning a national championship for Michigan State. He’s the quarterback, so people are gonna praise him and they’re gonna tear him down. Look at Tom Brady — there are people that love you and people that don’t like you very much.”
Cook actually mentioned Brady at Monday’s news conference in Dallas, saying he appreciated his accuracy and just-win mentality, even if he did go to Michigan. That drew laughs, but there is a connective quality — overcoming being overlooked, bouncing back again and again.
It will be tested today. The Spartans will try to run their herd of power backs, led by freshman LJ Scott, but the Crimson Tide defense has stuffed the best. And it’s preparing for Cook’s best.
“I would definitely say Connor Cook is the straw that stirs it,” Smart said. “He’s such a good leader, and there’s no defense we can put out there that he hasn’t seen.”
It’ll be a brawl, and Alabama’s defense will get in its licks. Will Cook and the Spartans shy from anything? No chance of that.