Before the rings there was the mettle.
Michigan State quarterback and Hinckley Township native Connor Cook’s life is much different these days after the 6-foot-4, 218-pound redshirt sophomore led the Spartans to a Big Ten title, Rose Bowl win and third-place ranking in The Associated Press and coaches’ polls.
But where things really turned around for the 2011 Walsh Jesuit graduate came after one of the lowest points of his season. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio pulled a struggling Cook in the fourth quarter at Notre Dame in the fourth game of the season.
What followed was a season where the Spartans won their last 10 games with Cook throwing 18 touchdowns against six interceptions.
The game against Notre Dame — a 17-13 loss and the only defeat in a 13-1 season — and what followed weren’t so much about motivation and proving the naysayers wrong as much as they were a learning experience for Cook.
“You live and learn,” Cook said. “The coaches pull you and you bounce back and be resilient. That was me dealing with adversity.
“Two weeks later when we had our first Big Ten game against Iowa, I showed how resilient I was. Anytime I faced adversity — like the first drive against Illinois when I fumbled in the end zone — I came back and went 15-of-16. Against Stanford, I threw an interception and bounced back. That laid the foundation for how resilient I would be.”
After a bye week, Cook was back, setting career bests in completions (25) and pass attempts (44) in a 26-14 win over Iowa. Three weeks later after a forgettable 14-0 win over Purdue, Cook was at it again, setting a school record for accuracy in the aforementioned win over Illinois.
Cook finished the season 223-for-380 for 2,755 yards and 22 touchdown passes. For his efforts, he was named second-team All-Big Ten by the coaches and received all-conference honorable mention status from the media. He also garnered MVP honors in the Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl.
Not bad for a quarterback who was trying to earn a starting role in August.
“Before the season I think everyone would have been shocked if you would have said we would have been Rose Bowl champs and Big Ten champs and I’d be MVP in both games,” Cook said. “It’s stuff you dream about. Over the summer when I was at home my parents said, ‘You’re going to be the next great starting quarterback to lead the Spartans to a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl victory.’ I’m sitting there like, ‘Yeah, right. Uh-huh, sure.’
“You obviously want to put that in your head and achieve it, but — I wouldn’t say it wasn’t realistic — it was just so far out there. My main goal going into the season was being the starting quarterback. I wasn’t really focused on how we had to win the Rose Bowl. I just wanted the starting job and then I was going to lead my team to victory. To be here, it’s just a blessing.”
Cook not only ran the table in the Big Ten — it was the first time the Spartans had done that since 1966 — but beat all conference opponents by double digits. He and the Spartans went into the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis heavy underdogs against a No. 2-ranked Ohio State team. Cook set a career high in passing yards (304) in a 34-24 win.
But it was Michigan State’s 41-28 at Nebraska three weeks earlier where Cook felt like 2013 would really be one to remember.
“I reflect on the season and the only thing to describe it is perfect,” he said. “We lost one game, but we won every single Big Ten game by double digits and we beat Ohio State, the No. 2 team in the nation who was headed to the national championship.
“Nebraska was a great team. We had never won in Nebraska. We never beat Nebraska. Every time we played them we lost. So to finally beat them in that hostile environment, for how well we played, I think that’s when I realized we had something special and we could make it to the Rose Bowl.”
With wins over Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska in the fold, Cook knows Michigan State should come in as the favorite next year and he’s ready for it. He also knows the pressure will be there like never before.
He remains the same even-keeled student-athlete he always has been, but he knows the pressure that comes with winning the Rose Bowl for only the fourth time in school history and the first time since 1988.
“Next year, the expectations are so high,” Cook said. “If we don’t win the Big Ten championship and make it to the Rose Bowl then the season is a failure after what we accomplished this year.
“When it’s all said and done, I’m so thankful. With what we have coming back and the potential with the guys returning, we have to build off it. For how well we ended the season, we’ll use this as a building block for next year.”
Contact Brad Bournival at firstname.lastname@example.org.