EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) While the rest of his team struggled again, Michigan State’s Connor Cook led the Spartans to a win at Rutgers last weekend with perhaps his best performance of the season.
Next up for the senior quarterback: Michigan, its stellar secondary and a game that could define Cook’s final season at Michigan State.
”The attitude, the emotion, there is just something in the air that you get, that you feel playing against Michigan,” Cook said. ”There is a lot of emotion.”
Cook entered the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate, and his team was expected to contend for a national title. The seventh-ranked Spartans are still undefeated, but 12th-ranked Michigan looms as a major threat heading into Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor, and Cook’s performance against the Wolverines’ impressive defensive backs could be crucial.
”It’s going to be a big matchup,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. ”There are tight windows in press man coverage so our wide receivers have to win at the point of attack. The ball is going to have to be on the money, but there will still be 50-50 balls that we have to go get.”
Michigan (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) is coming off shutouts against BYU, Maryland and Northwestern, and the Wolverines held BYU and Maryland under 100 yards passing. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown against Northwestern.
Lewis and safety Jabrill Peppers have become two of Michigan’s biggest standouts, and now they’ll face Cook and a dangerous Michigan State passing game.
”We know that Connor Cook is a great quarterback. He’s won a lot of games,” Lewis said. ”They have great, dynamic receivers that we have to game plan for.”
Cook is 29-3 as Michigan State’s starting quarterback, and that includes two victories over Michigan by a combined score of 64-17. The Spartans overwhelmed the Wolverines in 2013 and 2014 with their aggressive, punishing defense, and now it looks like Michigan will try to turn the tables in much the same way.
Michigan opponents have gone 16 for 85 on third down this season.
”They do a little bit more man coverage than they did last year,” Cook said. ”Last year they did a lot of cover two and stuff . more zone coverage than man, and looking at film this year, they do a lot more man . and they lock the guys up on the back end.”
Michigan State (6-0, 2-0) has been dealing with a number of injuries on the offensive line, and the Spartans averaged only 3.3 yards per carry last weekend in their 31-24 win at Rutgers. Cook needed to be sharp and he was, passing for 367 yards and two touchdowns.
Aaron Burbridge, the team’s top receiver, caught 10 passes for 156 yards. Macgarrett Kings and DeAnthony Arnett each caught a touchdown pass.
”I’ve said all along we have great ability to throw the football,” Dantonio said. ”Connor Cook does a great job. He’s been in big games before, he’s excelled in big games before.”
Now Cook will play in the one game on Michigan State’s schedule that always stands out, and the way Michigan’s defense has been playing, this could be one of the toughest tests of his college career.
”There is no such thing as a perfect football game, and things are going to go wrong,” Cook said. ”In an environment like that, as soon as Michigan makes one big play, the stadium is going to erupt, but we’ve just got to continue to fight forward and fight to the end.”
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org