Saturday's highly anticipated showdown between No. 3 Oregon and No. 7 Michigan State will feature a junior quarterback who's putting up impressive numbers, has a penchant for winning big games and should be considered a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Marcus Mariota is pretty good, too.
No offense to the Ducks' Mariota, who's a great player and Heisman contender in his own right. But one of the main reasons to believe that Michigan State can actually go into Autzen Stadium and pull out a victory is the calm, confident presence of the other quarterback in green, Connor Cook.
Think about the roll that Cook is enjoying right now. Not only has he won 11 straight games, he's also seemingly improving by the week. In the Spartans' opening win over Jacksonville State, Cook went 12-of-13 for 285 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. According to ESPN Stats & Info, his raw QBR score of 99.98 was the highest of any player with at least 15 action plays in the past 10 seasons.
OK, so that performance came against an FCS defense. But Cook also finished last season by earning MVP honors in both the Big Ten championship game win over Ohio State and the Rose Bowl victory over Stanford. In his past three games, he has thrown for 921 yards and eight touchdowns.
Cook wasn't even sure he was "the man" for Michigan State until early October last year. Now he's completely commanding the offense.
"I'm a lot more comfortable and confident now," he told ESPN.com this week. "It's a different overall level of comfort, knowing the offense and having that chemistry with the wideouts. It just makes everything a little bit easier."
You could see that in the Jacksonville State game. On the team's first possession, he threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Tony Lippett, who was Cook's second read on the play. Cook's scramble allowed Lippett to break free, and he withstood a vicious hit in the process. On the Spartans' next drive, he noticed that the defense had left Lippett alone at the line of scrimmage because of a coverage mix-up, and he fired a quick strike to the wideout for a 71-yard score.
"Through his experience, he was able to see that coming," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "He's far ahead of where he was last year, and he's continuing to grow. He gets better every practice."
Most people will focus on the confrontation between Oregon's quick-strike offense and Michigan State's stingy defense, and that is a feast for football nerds. But the mirror-image matchup looms as just as important, and Cook's job will involve putting points on the board and keeping Mariota & Co. on the sideline.
Not surprisingly, the Spartans have studied Stanford's recent success against Oregon as a possible blueprint. The Cardinal controlled the clock by running the ball effectively, and that is Michigan State's goal as well.
"That's going to be a big-time part of this game, time of possession," Cook said. "We as an offense have got to take charge of that and really establish our run game. I think a lot of the pressure is on us."
Warner said the Spartans came into last year's Big Ten title game against Ohio State with a similar mindset, wanting to play keep-away from the Buckeyes' offense. It's no coincidence that they opened the game with a six-and-a-half-minute drive that produced a field goal. Michigan State won the possession battle in that one but also scored quickly on some big plays, something it won't shy away from in Eugene.
"We're going to take our shots because we've got some skill on the outside," Warner said. "Regardless of how things go early on, we're going to continue to try and use the clock and our running game. But at the same time, we're going to spread it around a little bit, too."
Cook showed last year that he rises to the occasion under pressure, never more so than when he led a two-minute drill at the end of the first half against Stanford after tossing a potentially crippling pick-six. Even as a first-year starter last season, he never got rattled or shrank from the moment. That could come in handy in this game, as Oregon is likely to throw a haymaker or two.
"When things go bad, he's able to keep his composure and still keep playing," Warner said. "I think that's part of who he is, and that's what leads to the big-game situations. He doesn't let the distractions or things going on around him affect him."
Cook said the key to preparing for a big game is "to get focused, clear your mind and cut out all the outside sources, like your phone, Twitter, Instagram and social media." He admits to feeling nervous before every game but says he calms down once the ball is kicked.
This week's assignment is as difficult as it gets. But Michigan State fans should feel confident in the guy who will lead the charge.