One of the defining factors of the Michigan State Spartans‘ magical 2013 season was undoubtedly the chips on the shoulders carried by several of its most important players.
Cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebacker Denicos Allen, running back Jeremy Langford and quarterback Connor Cook were all lightly recruited players out of their respective high schools, yet all outplayed their highly regarded peers on the biggest stages. However, of all the Spartans who rose to the occasion last season, none were quite as under the radar as Cook was entering the Ohio native’s sophomore season. In fact, Cook wasn’t even expected to start for MSU, with senior captain Andrew Maxwell pegged as the Spartans’ best option for a rebound despite his woes as the 2012 starter.
What a difference a year makes.
After wrestling the starting job away from Maxwell—and temporarily losing it in the fourth quarter of MSU’s only loss of the season against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish—Cook gained poise and confidence with every snap, playing his best football in the Spartans’ final two games of the season. Every time MSU needed a big play from Cook, he proved he had all the ingredients, throwing his only 300-plus yard games of the season in wins against the Ohio State Buckeyes and Stanford Cardinal, when some expected his youth to finally cost Michigan State.
While Cook’s 22-6 touchdown to interception rate was outstanding for a first-year starter thrown into the fire, there were moments when his decisions nearly did prevent MSU from earning their first Rose Bowl victory since 1988. Sure interceptions that found their way to the ground may have bounced Cook’s way last season, but luck always tends to even out. As the Rose Bowl MVP recently admitted, the best way to swing things back into your favor is by putting your team in the least amount of those situations as possible.
“Throughout the entire year, there were times when things fell into place,” Cook told ESPN. “I was really lucky at times, and the team was really lucky at times. This year, I don’t even want to put ourselves in a situation where people say, ‘That should have been an interception,’ and it wasn’t.”
While Cook will inevitably make mistakes next season, especially now that defenses will have more of his game tape to study, his best trait may be his ability to forget the last play—good or bad—and deal with what is happening before his eyes in the present. This will also be important for the rising junior in regards to avoiding complacency after experiencing the highest of the highs just a few months ago. Maintaining an edge is not easy after newfound success, especially when Heisman buzz is zipping through the spring air in East Lansing.
The 2014 season will be a strong indicator of the futures of Cook and Michigan State. Sophomoric mistakes by a junior leader will not help MSU keep its positioning among the college football elite. MSU head coach Mark Dantonio crowned Cook and his Rose Bowl Champion teammates “the ones” for bringing the Spartans back to the promised land. Soon we will see if Michigan State’s offensive leader has spent enough time up before dawn or too much flying close to the sun.