By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Opening night couldn't have gone better for eighth-ranked Michigan State, first and foremost because quarterback Connor Cook didn't sustain a devastating knee injury on the Spartans' first drive of Friday's 45-7 victory against Jacksonville State.
MSU fans watched the life of the season flash before their eyes when Cook took the full brunt of a low, late hit on his left knee by Gamecocks free safety Folo Johnson. They may have be momentarily distracted by the fact that Cook's perfectly placed pass found Tony Lippett, who somehow stayed in bounds long enough during the final stretch of a 64-yard scoring play.
But, that quickly became an afterthought as Cook was lying on the ground while being treated with 48 minutes and 11 more games standing between the Spartans and the end of the regular season.
"Oh no," was head coach Mark Dantonio's initial reaction. "Yeah, that looked pretty ugly out there."
The indomitable Cook, incapable of being brought down by occasional bad plays all last season while leading MSU to the Rose Bowl, is also apparently immune to the effects of a hyper-flexed knee.
Cook looked no worse for wear while hitting a wide-open Lippett 94 seconds later for 71-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. He made it 21-0 before the end of the first quarter when he audibled out of a called running play and completed a 17-yard TD pass to AJ Troup, whose first catch as a Spartan more than made up for his former walk-on status and three knee operations.
"He rebounded after that and went right back in the football game and really didn't miss a snap," Dantonio said of Cook. "So that was a positive. I'm pretty sure he's fine, based on the way he played. The thing about Connor, he's very resilient. He came back and played very effectively."
Cook completed his first nine passes and 12 of 13 overall before calling it a night at halftime. His 285 yards left him 15 shy of tacking on a third-straight 300-yard effort to those recorded against Stanford in the Rose Bowl win and Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
He brushed off the brush with catastrophe with typical Cook aplomb.
"I was a little dinged, but nothing too serious," he said. "Yeah, it was frightening. I haven't really gotten hit like that for a while. It's been almost a year. But I'm doing all right, so we're good."
While what didn't happen was the most significant aspect of being 1-0, the Spartans did enough while surging to a 38-0 halftime lead to build confidence and generate momentum going into next Saturday's game at No. 3 Oregon. Michigan State amassed 565 yards of total offense, with 354 coming through the air - backups Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry passed for 56 and 13, respectively, in the second half - and 211 on the ground to beat the linemen's stated goal by 11 yards.
"It's great," Cook said. "As an offense, you want to have high confidence coming out of Week 1, especially going into a big game out in Eugene. For us to come out and play the way we did, with guys making plays all over the field - I mean Tony, Troup, Nick Hill's making big plays, Jeremy Langford, guys at the tight end spot.
"Playing the way we did, making the plays we made, and especially with the defense playing the way they did too, is obviously a big confidence-boost for all of us heading into a big-time game in a big-time environment against a big-time opponent."
Defensively, sophomore cornerback and one of six new starters, Darian Hicks, was burned on a 32-yard completion on the first play of the game, but settled in and came up with his first career interception late in the first quarter. The Spartans allowed just 7 yards on 14 rushes and 82 passing yards in the first half. With defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi plugging in backups from the three-deep roster all over the field, the Gamecocks came back to finish with a respectable 222 passing yards and their only touchdown, but just 22 yards on the ground.
"I'm happy because we got a lot of guys to play defensively," Narduzzi said. "We haven't had that for two or three years because we'd open up and it's a tight game. We had guys that you don't know about that had an opportunity to get in the game. It's just good to get guys on the field and see how they react in game situations.
"It will be a great tape-evaluation for our guys."
Seven true freshmen played, including six on defense. Malik McDowell, the massive defensive tackle and top-rated high school player in Michigan last year, came through his baptism under fire with a better understanding of how he matches up.
"I feel like I'm actually ready to play college football," he said. "The few plays I was in on, I did pretty good. I handled my job and was able to get the plays down. I feel like I'm ready now. It was no different than practice. I think I may have been hit harder a few times in practice.
"It will be much different next week. But I don't think my adrenaline will be rushing as much and I feel like I'll be under more control."
The Spartans have much to feel good about. They committed just two penalties, committed no turnovers and forced three (all on interceptions) and had five quarterback sacks. They controlled the ball for more than 38 minutes and had six different players with rushes of 14-17 yards.
Fifth-year senior free safety, Kurtis Drummond, who picked off his ninth career pass, said MSU can't read too much into the results against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent with an Oregon team, that's being predicted to compete for a spot in the first College Football Playoff, coming up in seven days.
"I sure there are things that we're going to correct and we can learn from because we didn't play a perfect game by any means," Drummond said. "Seeing (our offense) clicking early like that just gives us more confidence and allows us to play at ease."
Michigan State, Dantonio said, made a "statement" with its 11th consecutive win. The Spartans still looked hungry, instead of fat and sassy from last season's success. But, the true measure of what kind of team they will be will be revealed in the coming weeks.
"All in all, I think we got done what we wanted to do because we came out fast and we had energy one the sideline," Dantonio said. "We were not flat. We didn't take anything for granted. You come away from this saying it's 45-7, it's pretty lopsided by the score, but I'm sure there are things we still need to improve on.
"You always want to play a perfect game. To me, we weren't perfect."