IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) Michigan State senior quarterback Connor Cook has been a star for years, pegged by many as an NFL draft pick.
Iowa's C.J. Beathard spent two seasons as a backup. He's still somewhat unknown outside the Midwest.
Beathard will get his chance to prove he's every bit as clutch as Cook on Saturday in the Big Ten championship game.
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Beathard and the fourth-ranked Hawkeyes (12-0, 8-0, No. 4 CFP) face the fifth-ranked Spartans (11-1, 7-1, No. 5) in a virtual play-in matchup for the playoff.
''I've got respect for him. He's a good quarterback,'' Beathard said of Cook. ''He throws the ball really well and he finds his receivers. It's a tribute to him.''
Cook has the superior numbers over Beathard this season, with 24 touchdowns against just four picks. On Tuesday he also beat out Beathard, who has thrown 14 TDs and three interceptions, in a media panel vote for the league's top quarterback.
Cook has a track record of coming up big in the postseason as well. He played in the 2013 Big Ten title game, the 2014 Rose Bowl and the 2015 Cotton Bowl – and won all three.
As a first-year starter three seasons ago, Cook threw for 304 yards and 3 TDs as the Spartans stunned unbeaten Ohio State, knocking the Buckeyes out of the national title game. Three weeks later, Cook's 332 yards and 2 TDs helped Michigan State knock off Stanford in Pasadena.
Cook shook off a pair of picks in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, engineering a 21-0 fourth-quarter rally that beat high-flying Baylor 42-41.
''He throws really accurate balls, and especially in the times when they really need them,'' Iowa linebacker Cole Fisher said.
Cook's career numbers are astounding: 71 TD passes, just 19 interceptions and a 4-1 record against top 10 teams. A win over Iowa would cap a brilliant Big Ten career and put Cook among the best to play in the league in recent memory.
''Going back from 2013, we've won a lot of games. We've played in a lot of big-time games and we've had a lot of great moments,'' Cook said.
The same can't be said for Beathard, a junior who spent 2013 and 2014 as a backup up to Jake Rudock, now at Michigan. Beathard's only postseason exposure came in garbage time of an embarrassing bowl loss to Tennessee a day after Cook took down Baylor.
But since then, Beathard has joined recent Heisman Trophy winners Jameis Winston and Cam Newton in a select group of quarterbacks who've started their careers 13-0. Beathard won at Purdue in his only 2014 start.
Beathard also beat a pair of ranked teams on the road, including a 30-point win at Northwestern when he could barely run because of a groin injury. Beathard is 31 of 47 passing for 436 yards and three TDs in the fourth quarter this season. He also has a pair of fourth-quarter rushing TDs and none of his three picks has come inside an opponent's 20-yard line.
''Very impressed with their quarterback,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. ''I think C.J. Beathard makes plays, makes good decisions, obviously hasn't thrown (many) interceptions.''
Dantonio could have just as easily been describing Cook.
In fact, the feeling from both Michigan State and Iowa is that they'll have their hands full Saturday trying to stop quarterbacks who simply know how to win.
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