MSU's Connor Cook thrives under pressure

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- This is the part of it that Connor Cook really doesn’t look forward to. Here, he’s uncomfortable.

Put him in third-and-10 or the red zone, and he’s fine. Throw him in the center of the quarterback controversy he went through during Michigan State’s fall camp, and he’s great. Stick him in a game with a deficit, and he’s thrilled.

But place him in front of 20 reporters, cameras, recorders and lights and he can name several other places he’d rather be.

He didn’t anticipate this part of the job. The Tuesday before Cook led Michigan State to a 55-17 victory over Youngstown State he met with the media.

The next Tuesday there was another interview.

“Wait, they want to talk to me again?” he asked sincerely.

Yes. Everyone wanted to talk to him. If the Spartans had a chance for their offense to be a worthy complement to their defense, Cook was key. And people wanted to know what he thought and felt about the team, what he had seen in Notre Dame’s defense, where he had learned the game.

He learned from his father, a tight end at Indiana in the 80s. He learned in high school. And he learned from studying Kirk Cousins, who was a senior during Cook’s freshman season.

Cousins was an All-Big Ten interview, if such an award existed. He gave the keynote speech at the 2011 Big Ten Luncheon. He was eloquent and charismatic.

That’s not what Cook remembered. He remembered how good Cousins was under pressure.

“I’ve never been around or seen a quarterback like that before -- he was just so accurate on every single throw,” Cook said. “Every throw was on the money. … Always threw a perfect spiral.”

As a redshirt freshman, Cook didn’t play much during the regular season. But with the season on the line in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio called upon his backup -- who had attempted just six passes -- to go in late in the third quarter and win the game for the Spartans.

So this fall the question was whether Dantonio would go back to his senior, Andrew Maxwell, or put fresh blood into the offense with Cook or redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor.

That was the biggest question. And Cook was at the center of it.

But he loved that. The stress and pressure made him work harder. In high school, he trained with older receivers and competed against older defensive backs. The bigger the moment, the better his throw.

“Every single day mattered,” Cook said. “Every single day was so crucial.”

On the days when he felt himself being affected by it all, he’d call his sister Jackie, who had played basketball at Old Dominion.

She had never been through such a hyped a position battle, but she could relate to what he was going through.

“You’re living, eating, breathing football,” Jackie said. “There has to be some time you have for yourself to clear your head. When you’re trying to claim that starting position you tend to be very stressed. When you’re overstressed that’s when you make the mistakes and you’re not performing as well as you can. I just emphasized being calm, being relaxed.”

So Connor cleared his head with music or by spending time with his roommates -- center Jack Allen, right tackle Fou Fonoti and tight end Paul Lang. And on days that his family knew he’d be tested in camp, they’d make sure to text him extra photos of his dog, the 190-pound English Mastiff, Duke.

On Sundays, they’d have players over to watch “The Walking Dead.” Every other day of the week, they’d pick on each other. Fonoti likes candles. Lang decorates based on the season or holiday. Allen has a pet boa constrictor named Justice. And Cook is the apartment’s most impressive eater.

There was always some way to lighten the mood and in the midst of the biggest battle of Cook’s career, that’s what he needed to keep him loving the competition, keeping thriving under the pressure.

“The whole quarterback controversy, I think in the long run that helps him,” Jackie said. “It put him under stress and being a quarterback in a football game, you’re under high stress so I think when he went through that it sort of makes the game situations a little less difficult.”

Cook’s parents, Chris and Donna, would get their information secondhand from Jackie during camp.

He had a good day. He had a tough day. He’ll be fine. He’s handling everything.

Chris had known the pressure could make his son better. And before the Iowa game, Connor’s fourth start, Chris saw it firsthand.

They had gone to greet him at the team bus before the game and Cook, who normally would go over and say hi, walked straight past them. It wasn’t rude. It wasn’t unkind. It was a look that Chris and Donna, who played basketball at Cincinnati, both recognized from their own athletic careers.

“He went into Iowa with a focus like I’ve never seen,” Chris said. “You have to have the ‘Iowa focus’ every Saturday. And he’s learning that.”

So far, so good. In October, Cook has completed 75 of 116 passes (65 percent) and thrown for seven touchdowns. He has improved each week, capped by last weekend's performance at Illinois when he completed 15 of 16 passes for 208 yards.

This weekend, Cook will start in his first rivalry game as Michigan visits Spartan Stadium. It’s a huge game with Legends Division implications.

Win or loss, interviews will undoubtedly follow for Cook. There will be cameras, recorders, questions. But for 60 minutes, he’ll get to live in a pressure cooker of football.

And that part, he likes very much.