ARLINGTON, Texas -- Connor Cook sat in a corner locker in the visiting team room at AT&T Stadium pulling his Michigan State jersey off his pads for the final time and trying his best to put a positive spin on what had just unfolded.
“The only thing he said is, ‘It’s not supposed to happen this way,’” O’Connor said. “It really didn’t seem like it was supposed to happen that way.”
The quarterback at the center of Michigan State’s rise to a national power, the one who had previously delivered his best performances on the biggest stages, fell short of a fitting ending. Cook’s final game was the first time his offense failed to score a touchdown, much less a point, in his three years as starter. His final pass was an interception.
Michigan State needed Cook to be at his best if it was going to have a chance to survive against the Crimson Tide. The Spartans needed his pinpoint accuracy to exploit Alabama’s secondary, the weakest link of the country’s strongest defense. But for the first time in a long time, the best quarterback in this game was on the opposite sideline.
Alabama’s Jake Coker completed 25 of his 30 passes for a season-high 286 yards and two touchdowns. Cook completed 19 of 39 attempts for 210 yards and a pair of interceptions.
Cook's first pick was an underthrown ball on a potential touchdown. That zapped Michigan State’s opportunity to take some momentum into halftime. He scattered a handful of other missed opportunities throughout the blowout and never found a rhythm under the constant assault of Alabama’s pass rush. Cook quickly dismissed the notion that the shoulder sprain that had plagued him in November had anything to do with his performance.
“He played his heart out,” right tackle Kodi Kieler said. “We didn’t protect him that great. He was getting hit and getting right back up. He showed his toughness.”
Cook picked himself up after four sacks Thursday night, but he wasn’t able to pick up the rest of his team, like he had done several times in the past. He didn’t have the magic that led a 20-point comeback against Baylor on the same field a year ago. He didn’t make the throws that carried the Spartans through a three-game stretch in which an injury-riddled offensive line struggled to establish a running game.
“I’ve seen him do amazing things as a quarterback,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “Not a guy who’s thrown a lot of interceptions, doesn’t turn the ball over. He’s creative, and he’s played very, very well in huge games. So what’s he mean to our football program? He’s our quarterback that we’ve hung our hat on here for the last three years.”
During those three years, Cook won 34 games in 39 starts. He won two MVP awards in Big Ten Championship games and another at the Rose Bowl. He has more wins, passing touchdowns and total offensive yards than anyone who has ever played for the Spartans.
Cook and O’Connor rehashed the high points of those past three seasons while lying awake in their hotel room the night before Thursday’s Cotton Bowl. Cook tried to recall them again while riding through the halls of AT&T Stadium on his way to talk about his last game as a Spartan.
“It’s just been so fun,” he said. “The ride has been so fun. And the last thing I want to do is look at the downside and say, ‘Our last game as Spartans, we lost.’”
The loss to Alabama will tarnish the memory of Michigan State’s 2015 season, but it shouldn’t do the same to Cook, an unexpected star who was at the center of an unexpected rise in East Lansing. One night shouldn’t change that.
Cook embodied the prove-them-wrong identity of the Spartans as much as any other individual in the program, and his fingerprints will remain on whatever comes next.