Niyo: Cook's shoulder creates menu of MSU worries

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing — It was the same opponent, and the same kind of effort. Largely the same result, too.

But there’s a new question now for Michigan State, which suffered a season-altering loss under the lights last week at Nebraska and struggled to find the pilot light Saturday before dispensing with Maryland, 24-7, before a crowd of 73,406 at Spartan Stadium.

A year ago, it was a crushing loss to Ohio State that derailed Michigan State’s championship hopes. And it was a game against the Terrapins the following week that allowed the Spartans to regain their footing — steadied by their defense — and set the stage for a strong finish.

Saturday, it was that defense — much-maligned this season — that shouldered the load for a change. But it was the shoulder of Connor Cook that took a hit, and with a showdown looming in Columbus — a game that'll make or break Michigan State's season —  that’s an uneasy feeling, to be sure.

Mark Dantonio insisted otherwise afterward, rating his confidence level a 9.5 on a scale of 10 when asked about Cook’s status for next week’s game against the Buckeyes.

And though there were conflicting stories about just how Cook ended up a bystander on the sideline in the second half, or why Tyler O’Connor ended up taking snaps even before Cook fell awkwardly on his throwing shoulder late in the first quarter, that’s certainly the hope, if not the expectation.

But it’s also the last thing this team needed right now. Another injury concern? Another question mark? The Spartans’ senior quarterback sat at the postgame press conference Saturday and admitted the right arm that has been his team’s one reliable strength this season “felt a little weak.” The one player who’d been fantastic of late for Michigan State — throwing for 1,428 yards and 11 TDs the last four weeks — was merely “functional,” according to his coach.

The Buckeye behemoth

And everyone knows he’ll have to be much more than that if Michigan State is to have any luck at the Horseshoe next week. Ohio State has yet to lose a Big Ten regular-season game (30-0) under coach Urban Meyer, and the Buckeyes aren’t going to lose their first if Cook isn’t close to 100 percent.
“We’ll be all right,” Dantonio said. “Connor will be all right.”

All right, but there seemed to be some disagreement about whose decision it was to sit him Saturday. Dantonio indicated it was Cook who endorsed the idea. But Cook suggested otherwise, both with his body language on the field — slamming his helmet to the ground on the sideline after halftime — and with his postgame comments.

“I thought I could’ve gone,” said Cook, who was a dismal 6-of-20 for 77 yards with an interception in the first half. “I felt confident in my abilities and in my arm and my health. But Coach D just wanted to play it safe and keep me on the sideline for precautionary reasons.”

And that’s perfectly reasonable, considering this was a Maryland team that’d lost six in a row, and has beaten only South Florida and Richmond this season. This was the closest thing to a gimme on Michigan State’s schedule all season.

Enough so, in fact, that Dantonio finally gave Cook’s backup a meaningful series of work Saturday. He surprised everyone, including his coaching staff — “I’m the only person that knew,” Dantonio said — when he called for O’Connor on Michigan State’s second series of the game.

“I heard it on the headsets: Coach D said, ‘We’re gonna give the other guy a shot,’” said O’Connor, who promptly led the Spartans on a 10-play, 50-yard scoring drive to take a 7-0 lead. “So it was kind of random. I was about as caught off-guard by it as you guys were.”

Sub prepared

He was ready, though, after seeing Cook get upended by Maryland’s Jesse Aniebonam and come up with his right arm drooping on the next possession.

And though a grimacing Cook returned after missing the end of that series, O’Connor was ready after halftime, too, when it was decided he’d finish the game.

“Either you can do the job or you can’t do the job,” Dantonio explained. “I don’t think it’s anything long-term or anything like that. But he couldn’t throw the ball effectively, so we needed to make a change at that point.”

At this point, that’s not necessarily a problem. Nor is it impossible to think the Spartans are capable of winning in Columbus.

The defense certainly played better Saturday, albeit against the Big Ten’s worst offense. And after forcing five turnovers, “you leave with confidence,” coordinator Mike Tressel said, “That’s big.” The special teams actually showed signs of respectability as well, notwithstanding that botched fake field goal.

But the offense was a problem. (“Overall, we were very sluggish today,” Dave Warner said, shaking his head.) And with the linchpin removed Saturday, if only as precaution, it’ll be an anxious week, at the very least.