Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard and the rest of Michigan State’s seniors have won more football games than any class in school history, but it took an unheralded sophomore quarterback to lift them to the Big Ten title game.
Connor Cook was an afterthought in most season previews, just as he’d been an afterthought in national recruiting circles, coming out of Walsh Jesuit High School in Hinckley, Ohio.
Cook said he didn’t even receive a recruiting letter from Ohio State, the team the Spartans face Saturday night in Indianapolis. This might have shattered some prep quarterbacks from Ohio, but not Cook, whose father played tight end at Indiana, making the family lukewarm toward the Buckeyes anyway.
“I knew they had their sights set on Braxton Miller, and I knew they were only going to take one quarterback in that class,” Cook said. “I really wasn’t that highly recruited at that point, so if I’m not getting recruited by other Big Ten schools, why would Ohio State recruit me?”
Now, Cook has a chance to spoil No. 2 Ohio State’s BCS title hopes and lead No. 10 Michigan State to its first Rose Bowl since 1988. Tracing his path to Saturday’s game, there are reminders how agonizingly close the Spartans have come to reaching Pasadena in recent years.
The Spartans gave Cook his first scholarship offer, and he committed in December 2010, right after Michigan State finished in a three-way tie for the Big Ten title with Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Rose Bowl berth went to the Badgers because they ranked higher in the final BCS standings, even though Michigan State had defeated Wisconsin.
In 2011, Cook redshirted as Michigan State finished 11-3, losing the inaugural Big Ten title game to Wisconsin — 42-39. And Cook spent last year as Andrew Maxwell’s backup, as the Spartans went 7-6, losing five games by four points or fewer.
“Connor’s a guy that two years ago I might think you were crazy if you told me he was going to be the quarterback, and we’d be 11-1, sitting where we are right now,” Bullough said.
Bullough added: “It’s been unbelievable. I mean, the changes that kid’s made as a person and as a football player have been unrivaled by anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s grown up. He’s more mature, he’s more athletic, he’s becoming a leader on our football team.”
Any discussion about Michigan State starts with the defense. Bullough, a linebacker, Dennard, a cornerback, and sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun were all consensus first-team All-Big Ten selections. The Spartans lead the nation in total defense, allowing just 237.7 yards per game.
Michigan State’s defense was outstanding last year, too, but an inept offense led to a lot of frustrating Saturdays. The development of Cook and junior running back Jeremy Langford has keyed the team’s offensive revival.
The Spartans average 29.4 points per game this year, compared to 20.0 last year.
Coach Mark Dantonio kept the quarterback battle open throughout preseason camp. Maxwell started the season opener, and the strong-armed Cook has started every game since. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Dantonio benched Cook at the end of the 17-13 loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 21.
But Cook helped the Spartans go 8-0 in Big Ten play, ranking fourth in the conference in passing yards (1,708) and fourth in pass efficiency (138.6). After starting the year as a second-stringer, he wound up earning second-team All-Big Ten honors from the league’s coaches.
“He’s 10-1 right now as the starter,” Dantonio said. “I look back and say, ‘Should I have kept him in there those last two minutes of the Notre Dame game?’ to be honest with you. … But I think he has grown.
“I also think he’s a resilient young man. I mean, he can get knocked down and get back up, and that’s as important as anything in a football game.”