At best, this weekend's slate of college football games can be described as uninspiring. At worst, it's downright boring. Of course, these are the types of weekends that typically produce some crazy results that no one sees coming. But of the few games that actually do look interesting, the most appealing -- with the exception of the matchup between Arizona State and Stanford -- might be Michigan State's visit to Notre Dame.
This would have been a difficult statement to make after the first two weeks of the 2013 campaign. Michigan State was 2-0 with a ferocious defense, but its offense fell well short of where it needed to be for the Spartans to be considered legitimate Big Ten contenders. Michigan State scored just two offensive touchdowns in wins over Western Michigan and South Florida, while its opportunistic defense reached the end zone four times. (Defensive end Shilique Calhoun scored three touchdowns on his own.) Coach Mark Dantonio shuffled a group of three quarterbacks (Connor Cook, Andrew Maxwell and Tyler O'Connor) in and out of games, to say nothing of the constant specter of highly touted true freshman Damion Terry, who impressed in a preseason intrasquad scrimmage.
The echoes of last season's lackluster attack, which ranked ninth in the Big Ten and 95th nationally, seemed all too real, as the Spartans struggled to establish any sense of consistency. Entering last Saturday's game against Youngstown State, Michigan State was desperate for answers.
Cue redshirt sophomore quarterback Cook, who completed 15-of-22 passes for 202 yards and four touchdowns in the first half of a 55-17 victory over the FCS Penguins. The most important takeaway, beyond the sheer cathartic relief of scoring 55 points, was Dantonio's decision after the game to name Cook the Spartans' starting quarterback moving forward.
"He's not going to complete them all, but he's got good arm strength, great arm strength," Dantonio said on Saturday. "He's a big, strong, physical guy. And really the thing that he's lacking probably is long-term game experience, which he got today."
As the Spartans look ahead to their trip to South Bend this weekend, they remain largely off the national radar. They received the fifth-most votes of Big Ten teams in the latest AP Poll, behind Ohio State, Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin. Yet if Michigan State's offense continues trending upward, Sparty could be poised to make a splash.
"We needed a game like that [against Youngtown State] going into a hostile environment like South Bend, facing an opponent like Notre Dame," Cook said on Tuesday. "We needed that to reassure ourselves, to know our players were capable of doing what they did."
Dominating Youngstown State was a big step for Cook, who for the first time this season can pilot Michigan State's attack without having to worry about being pulled after one mistake. That fear hampered him in this fall's first two contests, and may have been amplified before Saturday's kickoff, when Spartans fans could be heard chanting, "We want Terry!" But after Dantonio gave Cook a vote of confidence prior to last weekend's game, he felt a release of pressure that allowed him to play looser. Now, he has confidence knowing there's no "OR" affixed next to his name on the depth chart.
"Just knowing that coach D believed in me, and that all the other coaches believed in me really assured my confidence," Cook said. "Before I was afraid to make mistakes, because I thought if I made a mistake I was going to get pulled, and another QB was going to go in there."
Cook will need that same mentality against a Notre Dame defense that, despite giving up 24 points to subpar Purdue offense last week, remains one of the most athletic and talented groups in the country. It retains many of the pieces that fueled last season's BCS title game run, including likely future first-round NFL draft picks Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix and impressive true freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith. Cook may have had little trouble carving up an FCS secondary, but the pressure and tight coverage he'll face on Saturday will present an entirely different challenge.
Still, he's embracing the task. After seeing encouraging signs from teammates during an upbeat practice on Tuesday, the sophomore is confident the offense can avoid a letdown performance. "You can see it," Cook said. "There's a different energy I saw in practice. Everyone's flying around, everyone's confidence, everyone's making plays and the energy's good."
Beating the Irish in South Bend would provide another huge boost for the Spartans, who open Big Ten play with a road trip to Iowa on Oct. 5. The schedule is seemingly manageable after that, as they play Indiana, Purdue and Illinois in succession before a brutal three-game stretch that includes Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern. If Michigan State gets by the Irish, it's not inconceivable it could be 7-0 heading into its Nov. 2 showdown with the rival Wolverines.
Many were quick to write off the Spartans after seeing many of the same offensive woes that plagued them last season, but the point-scoring potential they displayed last Saturday inspires confidence. If Cook can continue to connect with receivers Aaron Burbridge, Bennie Fowler and Macgarett Kings Jr., Michigan State could reenter the Big Ten championship conversation.
The first order of business is Saturday's show-me game in South Bend. That is nothing to overlook.