There are many reasons why Iowa and Michigan State made it to the Big Ten title game. But if you had to narrow it down to just one factor, the quarterback position would be a good choice.
Great teams almost always need great play from their quarterbacks, and the Hawkeyes and Spartans have enjoyed just that from their leaders under center. In fact, C.J. Beathard and Connor Cook share many similar traits, and not just because they are both tall, right-handed and blonde.
Both can make any throw and are good at protecting the football -- Beathard tossed just three interceptions in 303 attempts for Iowa, and Cook had only four in 337 tries for Michigan State.
Both are dropback passers in a pro-style system, but they are sometimes even more effective when they move out of the pocket.
What really connects them, though, is something a bit more intangible. Both have magnetic personalities that lift the players around them, and they both know how to deliver in the clutch.
No wonder, then, that both have such sterling records. Beathard is 13-0 as a starter, including one start last season. Cook is Michigan State’s all-time winningest quarterback, with a 33-4 record.
"One thing quarterbacks have to have is confidence, and you can see him playing with a very high level of that," Cook said of Beathard, though the roles could easily have been swapped. "In big-time moments, when they need him, he just has that level of confidence you want in a quarterback."
"He’s a great quarterback, and I have a lot of respect for him," Beathard said of Cook. "There are a lot of similarities in the style of offense we run."
Neither quarterback will likely enter Saturday’s game at Lucas Oil Stadium completely healthy. Cook injured his shoulder Nov. 14 against Maryland and had to work hard to return to the lineup last week against Penn State. Beathard has been battling hip and groin problems that limited his mobility for several weeks, though that hasn’t stopped him from making big plays.
"You’d never guess that he’s hurting," Iowa center Austin Blythe said. "He’s going to scramble from the pocket if he needs to. He’ll stand in there and take the hit and make those big throws. That’s the kind of thing that makes you -- as an offensive lineman, especially -- want to play for that quarterback and give that extra effort that’s needed."
Cook had the same effect on Michigan State in 2013. The team’s offense had sputtered the entire previous season, and the quarterback position was unsettled going into the following fall. Cook got the nod to open the season but was pulled late in a Week 4 loss at Notre Dame. It wasn’t until the following game -- ironically, in Iowa in the last meeting between these teams -- that the coaching staff fully committed to Cook. He rewarded them by throwing for 277 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-14 win. The Spartans did not lose another game that season.
"In some ways, I really feel like his coming-out party was against us in 2013," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It didn’t seem like he missed a pass in that ballgame. He hasn’t looked back since that time."
The Hawkeyes hesitated to hand over the reins to Beathard for a while, too. Though Ferentz said Beathard came to campus with a live arm and a great feel for the game, he had some maturing to do.
"That taught me a lot about patience and how to study the game and make most of my opportunities," Beathard said. "It was frustrating at times, when you come to a school and you’re not the starting guy. But I knew my time would come."
Like Cook, Beathard has risen to the occasion in big moments, whether it was his scramble and timeout to set up the game-winner against Pitt or the clutch plays at the end of both halves at Indiana.
"Two things that have really stood out are his toughness and his poise," Ferentz said of Beathard, though he could easily have said the same about Cook. "Those are things you don’t always find out the total story about in practice."
Likewise, Cook seems to play his best when the lights are brightest. He was the MVP of the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl in 2013, and delivered a comeback win against Baylor last season in the Cotton Bowl.
The spotlight will be on both quarterbacks Saturday night. It’s a moment both guys were built for.