From Spartan Pup to Spartan Dawg Michigan State QB Connor Cook Came of Age Last Week in Lincoln!

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There are many different things that have to work in the evolution of a quarterback. They don’t just hand off and pass. Although that is a major part of what they do, because of the position and importance, it is far from all they do.

Connor Cook is 8-1 as the starting QB at Michigan State. He had what was a nearly flawless performance at Illinois and has shown glimpses and glimmers of a star in the making. He has also shown signs of a first year starter. He should…he is.

To understand Cook, go back with me to 2010. I traveled to Hinckley, OH, to interview the star QB of Walsh Jesuit. I remember leaving his home that day and saying to Axel Hoyer (the father of former Spartan and current Cleveland Browns QB Brian Hoyer), “That kid has the work ethic to be special.”
Cook relayed to me that day his work with strength coaches, passing coaches, and nutritionists. He was night and day all in. Now, before you think he was a product of overly pushy parents, let me tell you he wasn’t. It was Connor. He wanted it and was willing to do whatever he could. Like any good parents they did all they could, but he loved it. He wanted it.

This happy-go-lucky kid would have crawled on his belly to East Lansing if someone told him it would make him better. Dantonio is 100% correct when he says “Resilient” is the word to use to describe him.

His ever-present smile early made some question his drive. What they didn’t understand was that the smile was because he loved the game, not because he didn’t grasp it. His ability to stay loose and smile isn’t because he doesn’t care, it is because he does and he is having a good time doing it.

Last year at CMU when MSU had a shutout, the young man came in in mop up duty and made a poor pass that resulted in a pick six. It was a poor throw and his effort to catch the DB on his way to the endzone was not as…aggressive as the coaches would like. 

They erupted in frustration. Saying after the game, “The defense worked their tails off; that is disappointing to get a pick six and lose the shutout and to not see the QB make the effort to stop it. Who knows if he would have caught him, but a better effort would have sent a message to his defense.” The young Cook would learn.

His lack of aggressive effort to catch the Chippewa before he got to the endzone was not a lack of caring or respect for the defense, it was a young man that wanted to do it right. He was frustrated. He had not seen the coverage, and typical of a young QB, he made a mistake. He learned. That is Cook. Behind the All American smile is a student of the game. A workhorse.

He is far from a completed product. Show me a redshirt freshman not named Johnny Manziel who is? What he is, however, is a growing QB with a chance to be special. Real special. Case in point was last year’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

He wasn’t the most accurate and he wasn’t Joe Montana, but what human being with realistic expectations is. What he was was fearless. He walked into the huddle, smiled, and said, “Let’s get this.” They did.

Sometimes people try to think too much. Sometimes in our 24-hour news cycle people make too much out of little things. We minor in majors and major in minors. Cook wins. Need we say more? He is in the process of possibly leading Michigan State to more wins than they have ever had in any season…As a first year starter.

Last week in Lincoln, we saw Cook take another step. Yet it wasn’t even close to his best game statistically. That is why I love the old saying, “Statistics are for losers.” At the end of the third quarter, he was an abysmal 11 of 26 for 116 yards. It wasn’t good. MSU had the 27-21 lead after five, yes FIVE turnovers.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the fourth quarter. Great quarterbacks are judged in that crucial last quarter where games are decided. Still smiling, still loving the game, Cook stepped into the huddle.

I tweeted that the time was at hand for this offense to do something. After two years of not being what people expected out of the defense it was time for the MSU offense to grow up and without great field position from a defensive turnover to go win a game. Cook did.

With 13:42 on the clock, Cook took over. He led MSU on two monster scoring drives that started at his own 25 and 33. They ate 5:52 and 5:06 off the 4th quarter clock draining the Huskers of any momentum in the fourth quarter. With each perfect check and each NFL throw, Cook let the air out of the ball and one of college football’s elite crowds.

For the first time all year Cook won a game for the Spartans. I am not saying he didn’t have a part in others. I am not saying the defense getting five turnovers didn’t help. I am saying that as the Spartans broke the Husker curse (0-7 against Nebraska up to that) it was Cook who took the team on his back.

Home COOKing was served in Lincoln. Cook showed what his upside was and his team bought in. He barked orders and encouragement. When a lineman or a running back missed a protection, he took the hit and delivered the pass.

When it mattered and when it counted, he went 4-5 and he ran his side of the ball like General Patton ran his tanks. He was in command. You could see it on the sideline. His teammates were not resting. The nation’s best defense stood along the sideline watching like the ticketholders in the stand. No offense to the Spartan cheerleaders gracing the sideline, but on those two fourth quarter drives it was the Spartan DAWGS who were Cook's biggest fans.

For the previous few weeks they could sense it coming, but they had to see it. As 90,000 of the Husker faithful watched helpless as Cook dismantled them, there were 59 players and a bunch of coaches watching like opening night on Broadway.

Cook played with guts like his defense and they loved it. They ate it up. Although officially a term for the defense, in that fourth quarter Connor Cook became a “Spartan Dawg.”

I asked star MLB about that fourth quarter and Cook’s play and he couldn’t wait to share. “That whole offense, Connor included, this whole year they’ve just gotten better and better and better. I don’t know if there’s many guys out there, many teams that could take the stuff they took at the beginning of the year and last year, saying they couldn’t do anything. They just keep trucking, keep coming to work, keep going to practice. And it’s shown. They deserve the success they’ve had. Connor deserves the success he’s had. He’s a great kid, a great football player, and he’s worked his tail off. I think that’s something that people are finally starting to notice. And they’re starting to get the production.”

When I asked another Dawg, Denicos Allen, about Cook in the fourth quarter he shared Max’s appreciation. “Did you see that? He was in charge. That was fun to watch.”

I asked Dantonio the same question about Cook’s maturation when it mattered most. He said, “I continue to talk about his resiliency. He has that ability to put it past them and to move forward. Knock and shook. There was a couple times he had some sacks. He held onto the football. They’re not on the offensive line; sometimes they’re on the back because he’s got the blitz off the edge. So it’s a combination of things. But I just think he’s resilient and he’s delivered. He had some big throws in the 3rd and the 4th quarter that really sorta put us over the top a little bit.”

When I asked Cook about his performance in that critical final 15 minutes he elaborated by saying, “I just knew that we needed a touchdown to kinda seal the deal, to kinda get a bigger cushion for us as an offense, as a team, heading out of the game or whatever. But I didn’t really feel anything different. I’m just calm and cool under pressure. I feel like I’ve been like that. I always have belief in myself. My main goal is just that we need points…a field goal, touchdown, whatever it is. I’m gonna do whatever I possibly can to lead my team down.”

For the young gun from Hinckley, he was just himself. He went on to add, “I think it was just me taking it upon myself to… It’s a big-time environment, playing in Nebraska. It’s loud, 90,000 people or whatever they’ve got. I had the jitters the first couple of series and they went away. But I think as soon as the jitters went away I was pretty good. You can’t really dwell on the past. You can’t dwell on a play that I overthrew. Looking in the back of the end zone he was wide open…yeah, I would have liked to have that. But you just gotta move on.”

 

That’s Cook. His highs are very high and his lows aren’t very low. He can be having his best game or his worst game and he loves playing the game. It is said that a short memory in football is a gift. If so, Santa delivered it to Cook.

He isn’t a finished product and anyone that expects him to be is a fool. What he is, is a sponge. He loves football. He has to run more. If he doesn’t, no matter how good he plays this season he will be pushed for his job next year. Dantonio has already publicly said he thinks Cook can be a 100-yard rusher in a game.

I do not think Dantonio said that as an expectation, but more as a vote of confidence in his young leader’s legs.

If you have watched Connor since high school, you know he can run. Now, he has to do it. That is the one part of his game that is lacking.  But, remember this, he is a first year starting QB; a sophomore at 8-1 who is growing every week.

Who knows if he will add the running component to his repertoire? What we do know is that scattered in the wake of Connor Cook’s past are a lot of people who doubted him. Don’t worry; he doesn’t hold a grudge, because he never really paid attention.

He is too busy loving the game and playing the game. The amazing part is that he isn’t a completed project yet. With all that he has done up to now, imagine what he could be?

Over these next four games he can put a strong grip on future job security if he runs the ball. Simply getting four yards here or there and keeping defenses honest. We also know that winning the next four games can go a long way for job security as well.

This one thing is certain. Spartan Nation, in the fourth quarter last week, saw a young man grow up and take command. He will still have his struggles, but that is part of youth. He has his wins and he has the confidence of his Dawgs. On this team a vote of confidence means a lot more than a vote of confidence from anyone else.