Oct. 5, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
Connor Cook took the next step, and it was significantly easier than his first couple dozen as Michigan State's starting quarterback.
The third-year sophomore wasn't flawless while leading the Spartans to a 26-14 Big Ten-opening victory at Iowa. However, the slips, trips and stumbles - figuratively speaking - of his previous four games were conspicuous by their absence.
Just about everything Cook left Iowa City with was a career high, except for touchdown passes with two, leaving him a couple short of the standard he set against Youngstown State. But, he completed 25 of 44 passes for 277 yards, and more importantly, established personal bests for command and confidence.
"I just felt more calm," Cook said. "We had a great game plan going in and the wideouts were just getting separation against their defense. The wideouts were making plays. Some of the balls I threw weren't perfect, but they were still making good catches and getting some yards after the catch.
"As each week goes by, I'm becoming more comfortable with the whole process of playing quarterback in the Big Ten, and then starting. It's like I'm getting in a groove. I also felt more comfortable in the pocket because the offensive line did a great job of protecting."
Every overthrow, underthrow and bad decision Cook made in his first three career starts brought him to this moment, in which the Spartans suddenly look stabilized at 4-1 overall, 1-0 in the Big Ten and garnering talk as a Legends Division contender.
"You watch yourself on film and you know to correct some things," said Cook, who went into the game saying he had to be more accurate with his passes. "But I know the biggest thing was that earlier (in the season) I wasn't really taking my time with my reads and I'd be in a rush.
"So what I improved on was being more patient in my reads and letting things develop, along with my footwork. I felt like a lot of times I was rushing so much I wasn't really throwing with my feet. I thought I did a much better job of throwing with my feet today."
While Cook was stepping into this his throws better, MSU's much-maligned receiving corps was stepping out with physicality and speed as MacGarrett Kings and Bennie Fowler led the way with more bar-raising performances.
Kings had five catches for a career-high 94 yards and Fowler had a career-best nine receptions for 92 yards.
The Spartans were the last team in the nation to record and offensive play of at least 40 yards, but Kings made the wait worthwhile when he put them ahead, 10-0, with a 46-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter.
Michigan State's nation-leading defense uncharacteristically gave up a pair of touchdowns during a three-minute span late in the first half. But, with MSU trailing, 14-10 at the start of the third quarter, it was the offense that provided the team with a lift when Cook led Fowler perfectly on a 37-yard touchdown pass. The defense responded in kind by shutting the Hawkeyes out in the final 30 minutes.
Fowler, a fifth-year senior, said MSU's 412 yards of offense against Iowa's defense, which was ranked second in the league and seventh nationally, underscored what the players and coaches have been saying all along about its potential and potency.
"We were able to get things moving through the air as well as on the ground," Fowler said. "We've still got to continue to play every game the way we did today, so I don't know yet if this gets (the monkey) off our back. But we don't pay attention to things like that anyway; we just continue to play.
"It was a must-win for us, to prepare us for the goals we have as a team. That's how we looked at it."
Fowler's perseverance resulted in a measure of redemption. He made his first start since catching three passes for 34 yards in the opener against Western Michigan.
"This was a big game for me, just to show the coaches and Connor that they can have confidence in me, and when we need a big play they can rely on me," Fowler said. "I just wanted to take a step another step forward. The last couple games I played well, and I just want to continue to build off that.
"The way I played against Western Michigan was not acceptable and it wasn't a Spartan performance. That's why these last four games I've been playing with more energy, more passion and more attention to detail."
As a whole, Michigan State looked more like the team that parlayed moxie and derring-do while compiling back-to-back 11-win seasons in 2010-11.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, a 25-yard rush by punter Mike Sadler on a fake led to the third of four Michael Geiger field goals. The career-long 49-yarder put MSU ahead, 23-14 thanks in large part to another play with a catchy name - also missing for a year - head coach Mark Dantonio called: "Hey diddle diddle, Mike Sadler up the middle."
And after Iowa missed a 50-yard field-goal try, the offense iced the game in a manner it couldn't last season with a time-consuming 12-play possession that included a fourth-down conversion and ended with Geiger's 40-yarder.
"It was a great, solid-team win," Dantonio said. "Wins like this change the posture of how you look at a football team. Now we're 4-1 and 1-0 in the Big Ten and going home to play Indiana. So, we look for great support next week and it should be an exciting atmosphere (in Spartan Stadium)."
Dantonio has often described the performances of individual players in the context of whether they were of championship caliber or not, so that when taken cumulatively, the Spartans had enough to win the Big Ten on that particular day.
So, did the offense give a championship effort in Iowa?
"I wouldn't call it a championship performance," Cook said. "Maybe if we would have scored more touchdowns in the red zone it would have been. But, that's something we're going to continue to work on. We don't want to settle for field goals."
"It was just another step in the right direction," he said. "We did take a step, though, and that's the most positive thing."
Every journey ever taken began with one.