PASADENA, Calif. -- It was a terrible pass.
Connor Cook knew it as he walked off the field; his back turned to a replay of the pass playing over and over from every possible angle above Michigan State's end zone.
Mark Dantonio knew it as he saw his quarterback slowly walk toward the sideline, his head slightly hung after he looked up at the scoreboard.
Cook, Michigan State's sophomore quarterback, was driving the Spartans near midfield with a little more than two minutes left in the first half and in position to either tie the game with a field goal or take the lead with the touchdown. Instead, he panicked when Stanford defensive back Usua Amanam blitzed him off the corner and he lofted a picture-perfect pass to Stanford linebacker Kevin Anderson, who ran it back 40 yards untouched for a touchdown.
It was the kind of play that usually turns the tide of a game.
It did. But in a direction that would surprise everyone not standing on Michigan State's sideline.
Cook had already thrown two other passes that could have easily met the same fate but didn't when they inexplicably went through the hands of Stanford defenders. It was understandable to wonder if the pressure of playing in the Rose Bowl was getting to Michigan State's 20-year-old quarterback.
So as Cook walked toward the sideline, Dantonio met him and asked him what he normally asks him when he throws a bad pass: "You good?"
"Coach D was just giving me this look, and I was hoping he wasn't going to be super-upset and say something to put me down," Cook said. "Coach D does a great job of just having a good relationship with all of his players no matter what. If you do something stupid, he's not going to degrade you, he's not going to yell at you, so I walked off the field and he said, 'Hey, you good?' I was like, ‘Yeah, I'm fine.' I gave him a little fist pump. Everything was good after that."
"He gives me a little fist bump and I feel better and we all go our own way," Dantonio added.
It wasn't always that way. Cook was competing for the quarterback job in camp and platooning at the position with Andrew Maxwell to start the season. Dantonio even benched him in favor of Maxwell in the final drive of Michigan State's 17-13 loss to Notre Dame in September. It was the Spartans' lone loss this season -- one Cook was forced to watch from the bench for the final two minutes.
After the Notre Dame game, Cook met with Michigan State offensive coordinator Dave Warner, who told him he needed to trust himself and his offensive line and take his time. This was his team and his time; he just needed to take it.
Two weeks later, Cook led Michigan State to a road win over Iowa in their conference opener and never looked back.
Cook would lead the Spartans the rest of the way, Dantonio would never lose faith in him again and, as a result, they would never lose another game, culminating in a 24-20 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
As Cook paced the sideline at the Rose Bowl after throwing the biggest interception of his career in the biggest game of his career, he looked back up at the scoreboard and saw there was still 2:07 left in the first half.
This time Cook wasn't looking for a field goal, he was looking for a touchdown. He connected with Tony Tippet for a 24-yard pass and two plays later found Bennie Fowler down the sideline for 37 yards to the Stanford 2-yard line. He finished the drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Trevon Pendleton.
"Anytime you can end the half with a touchdown, coming back from the stupid decision that I made, that gives you so much momentum," Cook said. "I think that was kind of like the turning point for the game, really."
It was just another step in the maturation of Cook, who not only led Michigan State to 10 straight wins to end the season, but had his two best games in the Big Ten title game against Ohio State and the Rose Bowl against Stanford.
"I have a lot of faith in him," Dantonio said. "I've seen him perform and I know him as a person, and he doesn't get rattled. He does not get rattled. It doesn't mean we're always going to be right, but he doesn't get rattled. I think that's a huge, huge thing when you're a quarterback -- that he can handle it, hang in there, have some bad plays and then bounce back and make great throws, and that's what he was doing."
Cook completed 22 of 36 passes for 332 yards and two touchdowns to claim Michigan State's first Rose Bowl win since 1988. His 332 passing yards are the third-most in Michigan State bowl history, and he became the first quarterback since 2000 to lead his team to a win in the Rose Bowl after trailing at the half.
"I was so nervous before the game," Cook said. "My butterflies were flying around a lot, but I think right then and there I was like, 'OK, you know what, I'm comfortable, it's the Rose Bowl, it's the second half, we've got to win this game.' I think that right there was really was the turning point for us as an offense."
The Rose Bowl might also prove to be a turning point for Michigan State and Cook as they look toward next season, when Cook's ability to overcome adversity and perform under pressure will be expected and won't come as a surprise to their opponents.
"After this year, obviously, the expectations are sky high," Cook said. "I think we'll have to realize that. I think we'll come together as a team and have that talk and stress how important next year is. From what we were able to do this year ... there's no question, there's no reason why we can't do it next year, as well."