Dec. 28, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
LOS ANGELES - It is the blessing, and it is the curse. It's the cataclysmic event that caused Michigan State to dramatically evolve into a 12-1 team that will play in the 100th Rose Bowl Game, and the reason the Spartans aren't playing for the National Championship, also at the Rose Bowl stadium.
It's what caused red-shirt sophomore quarterback Connor Cook to clear his head and set a definitive course for an offense that was having trouble getting out of its own way, but makes him a lousy revisionist historian.
Would the Spartans still have captured the Big Ten Championship, be ranked fourth in the nation and matched up against Stanford in the Rose Bowl if they hadn't lost the fourth game of the season, 17-13, at Notre Dame?
Would MSU have ridden a wave of confidence and momentum had they defeated the Fighting Irish - and to a man the Spartans felt they were the better team that day - to an even better place? Or would they have been undermined by a false sense of worth and hubris from beating a team coming off an appearance in the 2013 BCS National Championship game?
Would Michigan State be 13-0 right now, as some, including defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi like to suggest, had it won in South Bend?
"That's a good question," Cook said at Saturday morning's Rose Bowl Media session at the L.A. Hotel Downtown. "I couldn't tell you; I don't know. We probably would be 13-0. What I do know is that our defense has put us in great situations ever single week and our offense has just grown ever since then.
"But, I really don't know how to answer that question."
The Spartans will never know if it would have been better to build off what would have been a big win, but there's no question what regrouping after a bitter loss did for them.
"I can't describe anything else that's worse than losing, especially as a quarterback," Cook said. "You feel like you've let your team down, especially after the performance I had against Notre Dame, which was not very good.
"If we would have won maybe we would have lost (subsequently) because we wouldn't have become as close as an offensive unit, but I couldn't tell you. I don't know." If MSU's season were a connect-the-dots puzzle - done in indelible ink by the way - "START 1" would be the second quarter of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl exactly one year ago when Cook made a pre-arranged, feet-wetting appearance against TCU. Based on how well the offense moved the ball with Cook under center, he took over for starter Andrew Maxwell and the second half and led the Spartans on an eight-play, 45-yard drive that ended on Dan Conroy's game-winning 47-yard field goal with 1:01 remaining.
Cook didn't settle anything at that point, but he did force a re-opening of the quarterback competition in spring practice which, ended unsatisfactorily with no clear-cut starter. A four-man race made the situation even murkier in preseason camp, and two unimpressive wins, from an offensive standpoint, against Western Michigan and South Florida raised the question: If MSU has four quarterbacks, does it have any?
Ironically, it was Maxwell who replaced Cook on the Spartans' ill-fated, last-gasp drive against the Irish that led to the next defining dot in what was a necessary process.
A bye week bridged the penalty-marred fiasco against Notre Dame to a breakout performance by the offense in the Big Ten-opening, 26-14, win at Iowa.
"We just had that sickening feeling after losing to Notre Dame and we didn't want to feel that anymore," Cook said. "I think it was all in our state of mind. Guys took it upon themselves to make plays and to realize that we don't want to lose. Losing stinks. And with how good our defense is, if we score 21 points a game we're going to come away with the victory is how we look at it."
A crystalizing moment came in the scoreless first quarter against the Hawkeyes when Cook converted on third-and-8 with a 20-yard pass to wideout Tony Lippett. The Spartans didn't even go on to score on the possession, but the play continues to stand out in Cook's mind.
"It was a fade route to the left," he said. "There was man-coverage and I underthrew it a little bit, but (Lippett) reached over the guy and picked it off of his back. I think after that, it kind of got the offense going and it got me going. I was like, that was a sick catch. (Lippett) was fired up and I think everyone else, after they saw that, said, `We've got some athletes here and we can play.'"
The next connection linked to tailback Jeremy Langford, whose 109-yard, three-touchdown performance in the 42-28 home win over Indiana, sparked a streak of eight consecutive 100-yard games, leaving off with his 128-yard, one-TD effort in the Big Ten title game against No. 2 Ohio State.
As Cook and the Spartan receivers got more and more into sync - his school-record 15-for-16, 208-yard, three-touchdown outing at Illinois was another important pivot point - and the offensive line provided Cook with the Big Ten's best protection while opening holes to the tune of a respectable 4.4 yards per carry, MSU had an effective complement to its nation-leading defense.
"When the Notre Dame game happened, I remember a lot of us were looking down," said fifth-year senior offensive guard Blake Treadwell. "After that game, the seniors and leaders all gathered and we were saying this is not what's going to happen. We're going to stand up, we're going to fight and we're going to show what Michigan State can do.
"We always knew we had confidence, but I really believe that after experiencing that loss and going into Iowa and winning, we just knew things were in our favor." The process may not have looked like much at the start, and it wasn't always pretty, but it was necessary.
"It seems like a long time ago that we were being asked that question, `What's wrong with our offense?'" said co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner. "We went into the season with a stable offensive line and some depth there. Other than that, there were a lot of unanswered questions at the receiver position, the quarterback position, the running back position and the tight end position.
"It was a work in progress until those pieces started falling into place. Connor became the guy at quarterback, our receivers started stepping up and making plays, we sort of settled in with Jeremy Langford and the tight ends began a rotation. As that developed and guys started making plays, I think our confidence grew. We're still not a finished product by any means, and I think we can continue to grow and get better, but we're happy with where we've come."
Head coach Mark Dantonio, a defensive backfield coach by trade, was a steadying influence.
"He spent a lot of time in the offensive staff room with us, trying to work things through," Warner said. "Seems like every day we had discussions about personnel, trying to get guys in the right spot and the right guys on the field. It wasn't so much about what we were doing offensively - we felt we were going in the right direction with our schemes.
"But Coach D, I still remember saying and we relayed it to our players over and over, and it ends up coming true, is that when things start clicking it's going to snowball. Things started clicking as the Big Ten season rolled around and it started with some of our receivers stepping up. You know, a Bennie Fowler or a Tony Lippett, who didn't play great the first couple games, and then all of the sudden they started making big-time catches."
Cook may be the same unflappable person who was thrown into the breach in the Arizona desert that night a year ago, but he's almost unrecognizable as a second-team All-Big Ten quarterback.
"It's stuff you dream about as a kid, playing in the Rose Bowl, starting in the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "The whole journey's just been hard work, dedication, believing in yourself when no one else believes in you. You'd just got to dig deep.
"For this one, I'm the starter. I wasn't starting last year. This one's just a lot different. Obviously, this game is much bigger, it's the Rose Bowl. I've watched a lot more film, probably, than I did last year. It was my first real game experience, and really you're just out there flying around and reacting off your instincts."
All that remains for Michigan State this season is the granddaddy of all dots against a team that beat Notre Dame, 27-20, in its final regular-season game.