Oct. 25, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State's quarterback situation is stable, yet fluid.
Connor Cook is entrenched as the Spartans' starter going into Illinois, but it's important to note that he's not the unchallenged No. 1.
That said, MSU's final two series of its 14-0 victory against Purdue may one day be looked back upon as a crucial pivot point in Cook's quest for long-term security at that position and the team's need for consistent offensive productivity to sustain a championship run.
Through the first 47 minutes of the game, the third-year sophomore had completed 9-of-20 passes for 33 yards as the Spartans nursed a 7-0 lead created by the defense on linebacker Denicos Allen's 45-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the second quarter.
With the passing attack sputtering, co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman, quarterbacks coach Brad Salem and head coach Mark Dantonio discussed the possibility of making a change to senior and former starter Andrew Maxwell or red-shirt freshman, and largely untested, Tyler O'Connor.
O'Connor even took it upon himself to start loosening up on the sideline in the cold, blustery weather, according to Salem.
Armed, however, with the confidence that the nation's No. 1-ranked defense could protect the one-touchdown lead, the Michigan State brain trust gave Cook the opportunity to work out the kinks in real time, not 48 hours later while being critiqued on the video replay.
Cook responded by completing 4-of-5 for 74 yards. Most of that output came on the second-to-last drive and included passes for first downs of 18 yards to wideout Tony Lippett, 25 yards to wideout Macgarrett Kings Jr. and 26 yards to tight end Josiah Price. The possession ended on a 5-yard reverse pass from Lippett to tight end Andrew Gleichert for an insurance touchdown.
After the defense reaffirmed the coaching staff's belief in it by forcing the Boilermakers to go three-and-out on their last drive, Cook effectively managed a time-eating 55-yard march to secure the victory. He attempted just one pass, which he completed for 5 yards and first down to Lippett, and ran 10 yards on third-and-10 for a first down.
For as well as Cook played in the previous wins at Iowa and against Indiana, allowing him to stumble and get back up on his own may prove to be even more valuable. One thing is certain, Salem hasn't had to spend one minute this week building Cook back up from whatever damage would have occurred to his psyche from being yanked.
Instead, Salem has been reinforcing the dynamic traits Cook has demonstrated in what is now a representative sample of good, and sometimes great, passes, while trying to eliminate the almost inexplicable over- and under-throws to open receivers.
"He needed to make plays," Salem said. "He made a couple throws at the end and regrouped himself, but you need consistency out of the position. He knows it, so it's been a very good work week, so far.
"Can he grow from it? Can he respond to adversity? He did at the end and I think that's a positive thing for Connor and for us."
Going forward, Cook knows he has the permission to take the potential game-changing throws Dantonio all but demanded from predecessors like Brian Hoyer and Kirk Cousins, in addition to having a better understanding of how to assert himself thanks to those last two drives he almost didn't get to play out.
"Sometimes, it may not look mechanical, but do you throw with conviction?" Salem said. "You look at the route on the second-to-last drive to Macgarrett, he stepped in and fired the ball."
Cook isn't being asked to do anything he hasn't already done. Doing it consistently is his key to finishing games down the stretch because he's been given no guarantees.
"I know you get the, oh-the-guy's-in-the-bullpen-type-of-thought, but there's nothing wrong with that thought being put in his mind, either," Salem said. "There's competition and we've got to move the football. We're fortunate we've got a guy (Maxwell) who's started 14 games and a young guy (O'Connor) that's coming along and progressing.
"It is situational. We talked about (when it's appropriate to make a change) as a staff. Is it score? Is it weather? Are you at home or away? But we feel like we have two guys we can put in. You want to try to get guys game experience as much as possible, but it's the reality of the situation. (And) part of it is you want to still breathe confidence in the guy who's in."
GoG Blog Notes & Quotes: The long-awaited season debut of defensive lineman Lawrence Thomas could occur against the Fighting Illini, or not. The nimble-footed sophomore has been sidelined by a back injury since preseason camp.
"We have guys who are further along than he is right now, have played, have been in preseason camp, have gone through some fires and understand exactly what we're looking for," said defensive line coach Ron Burton. "When it's time, he'll be on the field."
Thomas could line up at end, tackle or nose guard.
"He's a multiple kid and a great athlete," Burton said. "We've got to find where our weaknesses are and where our need is based on our situation and make him a team player, and that's what he's being right now.
"When he does get on field, he'll create some havoc."
The Spartans are preparing to face a series of mobile quarterbacks starting with Illinois' Nathan Scheelhasse, who's being played by true freshman Damion Terry on MSU's scout team.
"The ability to understand that you're dealing with a scrambling quarterback is being assignment-sound," Burton said. "If you have contain, be in a containment position. Being athletic, he can get in and out of things, and you should know that pre-snap. Hopefully, we can keep him contained and be able to tackle him when necessary."