Connor Cook wasn’t expected to be Michigan State’s starting quarterback this year.
Even when he was given the job early, he wasn’t comfortable to hold it.
Yet once he found his rhythm, the Spartans marched to that beat.
This was a defensive team. That was the identity.
At some point, though, that wasn’t going to be enough, and Cook would have to be the difference.
Saturday, in the Big Ten championship game, it was batter up.
The top-ranked MSU defense was repeatedly gashed on the ground, dominated by Ohio State’s offensive line in the middle of the game.
So Cook answered through the air, throwing for a season-high 304 yards and three touchdowns in MSU’s 34-24 title-game win at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The sophomore from Hinckley Township knew the Buckeyes were vulnerable through the air — he watched Michigan’s Devin Gardner throw for 451 yards a week earlier — but it took him a little while to get started.
Maybe it was big-stage jitters in the 34-yard first quarter.
But when the Spartans needed him, he rallied over and over again. It started with two impressive scoring drives in the second quarter, and throughout most of this season, with the MSU defense, he could have taken a second-half knee and still won.
But when the Buckeyes surged with 24 unanswered points into a touchdown lead midway through the third quarter, Cook was placed in the quarterback-defining situation.
His mettle and steadiness, what endeared him to Spartan fans throughout the year, came at the end of the third and start of the fourth.
Starting each time deep in his end, he rallied MSU, first for a field goal, then marching for a touchdown — after selling the retreat to set up a wide-open throwback score to Josiah Price.
Cook gave the Spartans the lead, 27-24.
When the MSU defense held on fourth and 2, the moment that will be framed on a Duffy Daugherty Building wall, Cook still had to finish.
So he acted as any seasoned quarterback would, methodically marching the Spartans 61 yards for the sealing score — this one from Jeremy Langford on the ground — to give MSU the 10-point cushion with 2:16 to play.
On a night when Cook tossed a 72-yard catch and run touchdown to Keith Mumphrey, a 48-yarder to Macgarrett Kings Jr., his poise leading the last one to seal it showed his leadership.
Entering the season, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller was the Heisman Trophy candidate, on the cover of magazines, while Cook was MSU’s second stringer.
He certainly wasn’t thinking about being a December hero.
Yet that’s what he earned Saturday night, carrying his team to the Rose Bowl for the first time in his lifetime.
Michigan State was going to Pasadena, a Big Ten title in tow, finally because of its quarterback.
The most uncertain position at the start of the year became the steadiest at the end.