Is this the Year of the Quarterback in the Big Ten? With NFL draft hopefuls, veteran returning starters, and other intriguing prospects taking snaps around the league in 2015, it just might be. All week long, we’re taking a closer look at some of this fall’s most interesting Big Ten signal-callers.
It was late December 2012, and Michigan State was stuck in a rut. The Spartans offense had picked up only 84 yards in two-plus quarters of work at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. They trailed TCU, 13-0, and looked to be headed toward their fifth loss in seven games. Head coach Mark Dantonio decided to turn to freshman quarterback Connor Cook in search of a spark.
Cook, playing the first meaningful minutes of his college career that day, came off the bench to lead a 90-yard scoring drive. He capped it with the first of his 47 (and counting) touchdown passes as a Spartan. Michigan State went on to beat the Horned Frogs and hasn’t lost in the postseason since. The team has won 24 of the 27 games that followed overall, and Cook started in all but one of them.
To draw a straight line connecting Cook’s arrival and Michigan State’s rise to the top tier of college football is disingenuous -- not to mention unfair to the rest of a well-balanced program rooted in defensive dominance. The Ohio native didn’t arrive with the fanfare of someone like Christian Hackenberg at Penn State. He didn’t burst onto the scene like any of the Ohio State quarterbacking trio. Yet in a year where there’s plenty of competition for the title of Big Ten’s best quarterback, he’s comfortably in that conversation because one way or another he finds a way to win.
“If there is one thing you want to be known for as a quarterback it’s winning,” Cook said. “‘Oh, he’s got a great arm, but he doesn’t win games. Oh, his footwork, his pocket presence is awesome, but they went 6-6.' If you’re known as a winner that’s probably the greatest compliment you can get. Maybe the footwork isn’t always there. Maybe the plays break down. Maybe the mechanics aren’t always there, but you get it done.”
Cook is quick to point out his teammates' contributions when asked why he’s had so much success during the last two seasons. Running back Le’Veon Bell did most of the work -- including throwing a 29-yard halfback pass -- on that momentum-swinging touchdown drive against TCU. The nation’s third-stingiest scoring defense gave Cook more time to find his comfort zone in 2013, his first year as a starter.
But midway through that year, offensive coordinator Dave Warner noticed the offense starting to click under Cook’s direction. Warner and the rest of the team started to rely on Cook to pull them through sticky situations. The turning point, he said, was leading the offense to 41 points against a tough defensive line at Nebraska late in that season. With each win his confidence grew, and in this case the correlation between his comfort level and an offense that more than doubled its production since 2012 is a straighter line to draw.
“When Connor settled in our receivers began to settle in at pretty much the same time. That’s when things took off,” said Warner, who oversaw the country’s No. 7-ranked offense (43 points per game) last fall. “He continues to improve and learn as we move forward. I don’t think there’s any doubt that without him progressing like he did our struggles would have continued. That was the breakthrough.”
Cook said he’s continued to work on his footwork to get more and more comfortable in the pocket since then. He spent spring break in California this year working on his feet with quarterback specialist George Whitfield and planned to make a return trip this month for more training sessions.
Michigan State’s defensive linemen noticed the difference in how calm Cook was when working through his reads during spring ball this year. Expected to be one of the better pass rushing units in the country again this year, the Spartan defensive front gives Cook a good barometer to gauge his progress on a daily basis.
“He did a great job of when the pocket compressed getting out and finding a hole to throw the ball,” standout defensive end Shilique Calhoun said following the team’s spring game. “And not only that, he’s one of those guys that when he makes a bad play, he comes back out there and makes a great play. I can’t wait to see what he does this year.”
Calhoun isn’t alone there. Expectations are high for the third-year starter going into his final season as quarterback in East Lansing. Cook said he’s learned to thrive off the pressure to continue winning and to outperform the unusually talented class on quarterbacks in the conference this year. His track record -- MVP of the Big Ten title game a year ago, a Rose Bowl win a month later and following that up by throwing two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a dramatic Cotton Bowl victory over Baylor in January -- is evidence of that.
The list of unaccomplished goals for Cook and his head coach is short. Dantonio knows this might be the year to check off a couple more before his quarterback is off to the NFL.
“We’ve got a great opportunity with him,” he said. “He’s a championship type quarterback ... 24-3.”