EAST LANSING, MICH. — Most people wouldn’t have predicted that sophomore quarterback Connor Cook would be the one to lead the Michigan State Spartans to the Big Ten championship game.
But senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard is not most people.
“I was always high on Connor Cook,” Dennard said. “When I saw him on scout team I always told him after practice keep working and he’s gonna lead us to a national championship here one day.”
The offense did not look too promising at the start of the season when neither Cook nor senior Andrew Maxwell seized the starting job.
Cook completed 6-of-16 passes for 42 yards in the first game of the season against Western Michigan, a game Maxwell started, then went 6-for-11 for 32 yards in the second game against South Florida.
Things perked up a bit in the third game against Youngstown State, when he went 15-for-32 for 202 yards and four touchdowns.
Then came the Notre Dame game, the only blemish to date in the Spartans’ 11-1 season (8-0 in the Big Ten).
Cook was 16-of-32 for 135 yards and one touchdown in the 17-13 loss.
“He’s 10‑1 right now as the starter,” Michigan State coach Mark 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 because he at least was in.”
Despite the loss, that game helped Cook turn the corner. Receiver Bennie Fowler noticed it during the game.
“He made strides as the game went on,” Fowler said. “He got better and better, and that was our first away game. Throughout the game he played in a hostile environment like that, he showed flashes that he was going to be that guy.”
After a bye week, the Spartans then opened the Big Ten season on the road at Iowa and Cook proved Fowler right.
Cook completed 25-of-44 passes for 277 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in a 26-14 victory.
“Ever since then I feel like I’ve done a much better job of being a leader, commanding the offense, and just making better decisions and stuff like that, and now we’re here,” Cook said.
Cook followed that performance up with solid performances at home against Indiana and Purdue and then an inspired one at Illinois in which he completed 15-of-16 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-3 beatdown of the Illini.
His .938 completion percentage set a new single-game school record and was the seventh best in Big 10 history.
Cook’s 264.8 passing efficiency rating for that game is the fifth-best single-game total for a quarterback in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision this season and the best against a BCS opponent.
“I really felt like after the Iowa game we saw great growth, and then when he was able to come back in the next game and the next two or three games and put together back‑to‑back games with great play, I thought that it was a very big positive step for him,” Dantonio said. “He has that presence about him, that ability to take a hit, to take something bad happening out there and be able to respond, and I think that’s huge, especially in a championship venue, because there’s going to be some bad plays.”
Cook helped the Spartans get victories over rival Michigan, at Nebraska, at Northwestern and in the regular-season finale against Minnesota. He finished with 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
Dennard said the potential he saw in Cook was being realized.
“He started going into the huddles with confidence and started announcing more confidence toward the team to where guys started to follow him,” Dennard said. “I’ve seen a lot of growth since the beginning of the season when he was kind of on the back end, just playing the position, just letting it happen cause he had a senior quarterback in Andrew Maxwell.
“Now he’s really taken control of the offense, he’s showing confidence and showing the moxie playing the game. He’s come a long way.”
Cook has come far enough that he was named second team All-Big Ten by the coaches and honorable mention All-Big Ten by the media.
“I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now if it wasn’t for the great offensive line that we have here, keeping me protected throughout the entire season, allowing me to go through my read progression and be able to stand back there confidently knowing that I’m protected,” Cook said. “My receivers making big plays when the time is needed, them putting me in a good situation and making me look good at times when maybe I shouldn’t look good.”
Senior linebacker Max Bullough marveled at the progress Cook has made in such a short time.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Bullough said. “The changes that kid has made as a person and as a football player have been unrivaled by anyone that I’ve ever seen. He has become a leader on this football team.
“Any quarterback that can come in, in their first year, and really command and run a team in the Big Ten, that says a lot about him as a football player and also a lot about him as a person.”
Now Cook is on the verge of leading the Spartans to something special — their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1988, five years before Cook was born.
To do that, the Hinckley, Ohio native will have to beat his home state Buckeyes, the same Buckeyes who had no interest in him.
“I knew they had their sights set on Braxton Miller and they were only gonna take one quarterback in that class and they already offered Braxton Miller at the time and hadn’t offered me,” Cook said. “I really wasn’t getting recruited at that point, I was not that highly recruited of a player.”
Like all the Ohio-born Spartans, Cook said he’ll play with “a little extra edge.”
At least Cook will have his friends from back home on his side.
“My friends will be rooting for me, I already talked to them all,” Cook said. “They’re good friends, very loyal, true friends.”
But Cook won’t let any animosity towards Ohio State take away from what he needs to accomplish this week.
“This is the most important week of our entire lives,” Cook said. “Definitely it’s the most important week for my life since I’ve been alive, stuff you dream about, the implications that are riding on this game.
“Any time there are those kinds of implications you do everything possible to prepare for this game.”