Ohio kid trying to stop Buckeyes’ run

The guy who grabbed the job and ended Michigan State’s quarterback carousel is from Ohio, grew up with Big Ten football, never even got a recruiting letter from Ohio State and now gets a chance to play a headline role in ending both the longest win streak in Ohio State history and the Buckeyes national championship dreams in Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game (8 p.m., FOX).

The Connor Cook story writes itself — and Cook gets a chance to write the ending.

“It’s definitely the most important week of my life,” Cook said. “This is the stuff you dream about.”

It’s also the week he finds out who his friends are.

Cook grew up in Hinckley, Ohio, near Medina, and went to Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, and though he wasn’t an Ohio State fan — his father played football at Indiana — he grew up watching and following Ohio State football. He estimated that he has as many as 20 friends who go to Ohio State, and that doesn’t include acquaintances, neighbors and old friends who are alumni or season-ticket holders or have some other personal tie or loyalty to Ohio State football and also to Cook.

“They’re loyal friends,” Cook said. “My friends will be rooting for me.”

Johnni DiJulius is an Ohio State wrestler and a close friend of Cook’s since high school. The two have been texting this week, talking about their excitement for “the big stage” and the high stakes of Saturday night’s game.  

“I’m friends with a couple Ohio State football players and I’d love to see them win a national championship,” DiJulius said. “But Connor is one of my close friends. I’ve been watching and rooting for him and I really think he’s ready to deliver a huge game and kind of show the nation how far he’s come.”

A redshirt sophomore, Cook wasn’t Michigan State’s starter at the beginning of the season. He played poorly and was replaced late in Michigan State’s only loss at Notre Dame in September, but has come back since to play his best football. Having the nation’s No. 1 defense helps, but Cook has thrown 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions in Big Ten play and was good enough to earn second-team All-Big Ten honors in the media vote.

His counterpart Saturday is Braxton Miller, the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year and a player Cook has been following since high school. Cook played against Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant in high school — Grant’s second choice was Michigan State — and spent his high school years going to camps and competing for honors with Miller and other players currently on Ohio State’s roster.

“To be honest I knew (Ohio State) had their sights set on Braxton, and if I remember correctly he gave Ohio State a commitment pretty early,” Cook said. “I really wasn’t highly recruited, so why would they recruit me? I never even received a letter.”

Cook said that when he thought his dream to play quarterback in college looked like it could become reality, he made a list of five programs he hoped would offer him a scholarship, listing Michigan State No. 1.

“And Michigan State made the first offer,” he said.

Said DiJulius: “As a wrestler in Northeast Ohio, you dream of wearing that Block-O on your singlet. I wasn’t a football player, but I grew up with kids who dreamed of wearing the helmet with the Buckeye leaves. Ohio State football is a huge deal. It’s been a great program forever. Connor was in a situation where Braxton Miller was a big-time recruit and of course Ohio State wanted him. He’s been phenomenal.

“I remember Connor being very driven, just wanting the chance to be a Div. I quarterback.”

DiJulius met Cook at first not by accident but by alphabet; their lockers were almost adjacent during their freshman year at Walsh. Another friend of Cook’s who now attends Ohio State is Bryn Lloyd, a Walsh Jesuit cheerleader who was in the same class and remains part of a group “that tries to keep in touch. We’re spread out but we’re still close. We still stay in contact and care about each other.”

Lloyd said that a group of Walsh Jesuit grads — some who attend Ohio State, some who don’t — got together last December to watch Cook and Michigan State play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.  

“Being an Ohio native, having all my friends, kids I went to school with that go to Ohio State, obviously the game is already big — big enough,” Cook said. “But having those extra people, those ties with people who are connected to the university, it does make the game a lot bigger.”

Lloyd is a health sciences major at Ohio State, a member of the Delta Gamma sorority and a Buckeyes football season-ticket holder. She admitted having “very split” loyalties this week and isn’t sure how she’ll handle it — or exactly which side she’ll be rooting for — if the game comes down to a fourth-quarter drive with the ball in Cook’s hands.

“It’s hard because I’m a huge Ohio State football fan and it’s been such a great season,” she said. “I’m loyal to my Buckeyes but I know what this game means to Connor.”

DiJuluius will be at the CKLV Wrestling Invitational in Las Vegas, which he said is the biggest event of the regular season for the Buckeyes wrestling team.

“I want Connor to have the game of his life,” DiJulius said. “When it’s over, I’m probably going to have really positive and really sick feelings both ways.”