Michigan State prepared Cook for heat of NFL debut

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Connor Cook played in his share of big games at Michigan State, and the rookie quarterback is hoping that has put him in the right position this week.

Quarterback Connor Cook will be the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first start in the playoffs.

Of course, it’s not clear if anything can prepare Cook for what he’s about to do — start for the Oakland Raiders in their playoff game against the Houston Texans on Saturday afternoon. That, in itself, isn’t the biggest thing. What is, of course, is the fact it will be the first start of Cook’s career.

Thanks to injuries to both Derek Carr and Matt McGloin, Cook will become the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first start in the playoffs.

Not surprisingly, Cook is hardly shying away from the moment.

“I’m just embracing the opportunity,” Cook said. “Going to go out there and have fun, let it all hang out and obviously prepare my butt off, do what I’ve been doing all season long and just go out there and have fun with my teammates.”

MSU's Connor Cook will start for Raiders vs. Texans

Cook made his first appearance in an NFL regular season game last week after McGloin was hurt in the second quarter of the Raiders’ 24-6 loss to the Denver Broncos. He was 14-for-21 for 150 yards and a touchdown, but he did throw an interception and fumbled twice.

After a week full of first-team reps, however, he’s hoping he’ll be in a better spot on Saturday as he makes the quick transition from inactive to starting.

“It’s just the name of the game,” Cook said. “You see things like this happen a lot. Anything can happen. Anything can change with a drop of the hat. So, you just always have to be ready and whether it’s out there on the practice field getting mental reps, putting yourself through it mentally to now actually getting reps, you just have to approach every single day like it’s the same.”

The last time Cook started a playoff game was last season when Michigan State took on Alabama. That didn’t go well as the Spartans were shut out, 38-0, and Cook had an interception late in the first half that changed the complexion of the game.

However, all those big games at Michigan State will likely mean he can at least handle the moment.

Quarterback Connor Cook went 34-5 at Michigan State.

While at Michigan State, Cook won more games than any quarterback in program history, going 34-5 in his career while leading the Spartans to two Big Ten championship game wins, victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls and a 23-2 mark against Big Ten opponents.

“I know it’s an elevated level of play and it’s all relative and everything, but he’s played on a big stage and he’s had a lot of anxiety, big-game jitters and things like that and he’s played very, very well in those games,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said on the NFL Network. “I think that’s going to serve him as well as anything as he takes this opportunity and has an opportunity to play this weekend.”

Cook agreed and even spoke this week with Michigan State quarterbacks coach Brad Salem. But knocking down the nerves is something he’s used to doing.

“You just go out there and play, really,” Cook said. “You always have the nerves leading up to the game and once you get out there you have a couple snaps and you get hit, get knocked down then all of that stuff kind of goes away and you start to play ball.

“Obviously, playing at Michigan State, we played in some big-time games there. We were fortunate enough to do that. So, I’m going to try and take whatever I did there, use it, put it to use out there Saturday.”

Heading into last spring’s draft, Cook was dogged by questions about leadership, many stemming from the fact he was never a captain at Michigan State. It likely was a factor in him dropping to the fourth round where he was selected by the Raiders, a team that had Carr, a young promising quarterback.

But judging by what his teammates saw in Cook last week, it doesn’t appear there are any questions about Cook’s ability to lead the team into the playoffs.

“I would say the most impressive thing was when he went into a very difficult set of circumstances, and I thought he handled himself extremely well,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. “I thought the poise was there. The moment didn’t look too big for him. I thought he did a real nice job leading the team down and moving the ball.”

If he’s able to do so again on Saturday and help the Raiders advance, there’s no telling what it does for Cook’s career. Carr is the clear No. 1 in Oakland, but it could lead to an opportunity somewhere else.

For now, Cook is focusing on one thing at a time, and that’s playing on the big stage once again.

“I’m going to embrace it, this opportunity,” he said. “Give it everything I got and go out there and have fun.”