Connor Cook started 2014 with a bang. He led the Michigan State Spartans to an upset victory over the Stanford Cardinal in the Rose Bowl and was the games’ offensive MVP.
Not many people outside of the Cook family could have predicted such a story book ending to the young quarterback’s sophomore season, especially after his brutal start.
One of the great things about sports is it’s not how a player or team starts, it’s how they finish. Even with the great finish last season, obviously Cook can’t start 12-27 for 74 yards, like he did in his first two starts in 2013, especially with the big second game of the season at Oregon on September 6.
Spartan fans should not worry about anything like that happening again. “Sparty” should have a lot of confidence that Cook and the offense can lead the Spartans this season. After the horrendous start, Cook grew more in-season than possibly any college quarterback ever. To say the bar is raised for Cook this season would be an understatement, but it should be.
If in fact the Spartans do make some serious noise this season, as they expect to, they will have earned it. In addition to the big, non-conference game in Eugene, the Spartans also have to deal with a very tough Big Ten schedule. With the Big Ten adding two teams this season, the conference realigned and renamed the divisions.
Michigan State will be battling in-state rival Michigan and Ohio State, the team most “experts” believe will be the cream of the crop in the BIG, for the championship in the new East Division.
The newly formed East Division also has Indiana, Maryland, Penn State and Rutgers in it. The East is by far the toughest division in the Big Ten, which gives Cook no room for error.
Even with a few new faces on the offensive line, the Spartans have a solid core coming back this season.
The only tough conference game the Spartans play away from home will be the last game of the regular season, when the Spartans head to Happy Valley to take on Penn State, which has always been a tough game for the Spartans.
The schedule has an easy stretch, but gets tough in the middle, when the Spartans play Michigan and Ohio State in back-to-back games. The positives about the back-to-back games are the bye week between them, as well as the Wolverines and Buckeyes having to travel to East Lansing. Even though the games would be tough played anywhere, MSU does catch a nice break with the scheduling and being able to play both of their biggest conference games at home.
It does not seem too crazy to predict an even better ending for Cook this season. Two very realistic places Cook could end his junior season are in “The House that Jerry Built,” and/or New York.
Some may laugh at these lofty expectations but Cook has a solid team around him and one of the best coaching staffs in the country. The 2014 season will not be a walk in the park for Cook and his Spartans, but he and the team are even better than most think.
Not often, if ever, has the Spartans offense been counted on for the teams’ success as much as it will be this season. Normally this would be a sign of a down season for Michigan State, but that’s not the case this year, as the Spartans’ offense is very capable and willing to carry the load for the team. Having such a talented offense to go with what surely will be another great defense is a rarity for MSU.
Cook is also very capable, as he showed with his breakout game against the Cardinal in the Rose Bowl, of leading the Spartans attack against anyone. Cook’s MVP performance in the Rose Bowl didn’t come against a cupcake defense. He lit up a Cardinal defense that was one of the best defenses in ‘13, passing for 332 yards and two touchdowns.
Cook passed for 2,755 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, with just six interceptions. Not bad for a QB many thought would not stick as the starter.
This season the Spartans will need even more from Cook and the offense. Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio didn’t seemed worried when he was asked about his QB by Michigan State beat writer Mike Griffith after the teams’ annual spring game.
“He’s a very confident player,” Dantonio said. “I think he moves well with the ball. I think he’s got a big upside in terms of what he can do with the ball more than just throwing the ball, in terms of his scrambling ability. He can create.”
Create wins and carry the team is what the Spartans need Cook to do, especially early in the season as the defense gels.
The sky is the limit for Cook this season. To go out on a limb and predict he can lead the Spartans to another Big Ten Championship, or a National Championship doesn’t seem that far-fetched.
Even though Cook does not put much into the early predictions and high rankings, he does realize the team will have a target on their back as they defend the Big Ten title.
When Cook was asked by Griffith about having that target on the teams’ back he said, “If you have a target on your back then everyone is going to be gunning for you, especially because the expectations are so high. We know that and we’re ready for it. We’ve been working extra hard this past offseason. We’re going to keep working hard in the fall camp, but I think we have the guys and that we can continue to compete at a high level continue to win, even if the target is on our back.”
That doesn’t sound anything like a quarterback who last season didn’t even know if he would be the starter. It sounds like a player ready to lead a very good team to the highest of highs this season, and any personal awards he wins will be secondary to the ultimate prize, as Cook looks to start 2015 with a bigger bang than he did 2014.