Connor Cook's journey from platooning also-ran to Rose Bowl starter began where it so nearly ended: on the sideline of the field at Notre Dame Stadium.
Trailing the Fighting Irish 17-13 with just over two minutes on the clock, head coach Mark Dantonio benched his sophomore starter, opting to let senior Andrew Maxwell lead the all-important drive. Maxwell started for Michigan State's woeful offense in 2012 and won the job out of fall camp, so it wasn't an out-of-left-field decision.
It also didn't work.
Maxwell's drive went backward, petering out the same way Michigan State's offense had all afternoon. The Spartans lost their first and only game of the season that day and appeared to be mired in a vicious cycle of quarterback mediocrity. But then someone finally stepped up. And Cook made sure it was him.
"After the Notre Dame game, I had a meeting with Coach Warner," Cook told Josh Slagter of MLive.com, referring to offensive coordinator Dave Warner. "He just said you can be so much better if you just take your time, don't rush and go through your progressions and trust your offensive linemen."
"I was getting more comfortable in my role."
That last part became clear. Jilted by Dantonio on the biggest stage, Cook looked within himself to get better instead of lashing out or sulking. Two weeks later, on the road in the Big Ten opener against a very good Iowa defense, Cook was a different quarterback entirely. The Spartans gained more than 400 yards and won by 12 points.
The quarterback controversy was over.
It didn't stop there, either. Michigan State's offense kept getting better each week. Against all odds, it suddenly turned into a competent and competitive outfit. Under Cook's renewed guidance, it has moved the ball well enough and scored enough points to run the table in the Big Ten...without winning a single game by fewer than 10 points.
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There were some bumps in the road along the way, no doubt.
Cook and the offense stalled at home against Purdue on Oct. 19, scoring just 14 points against a team that allowed 55 on three different occasions this season (and generally couldn't stop a nosebleed upside down). The defense needed to save MSU, which is precisely what it did with a shutout.
But those hiccups have been few and far between. Bad as it was, the no-show against Purdue appears to be the exception that proves the rule. In their other eight conference games, the Spartans have gained 6.33 yards per play.
Clemson, which is widely regarded as one of the best and most explosive offenses in America, averaged 6.28 for the year.
More important than numbers, though, Cook has stepped up when his team needed it most. Stages don't come much bigger than the Big Ten Championship Game, which was played in the NFL confines of Lucas Oil Stadium and directly impacted the national title hunt. All Ohio State needed to do was slow down Cook and the Spartans offense. If it could, it would play for the ultimate prize.
Cook played the best game of his career against the Buckeyes, helping the Spartans gash OSU's defense for 438 yards and 34 points. He finished with 304 passing yards and was named the game's MVP. Afterward, he preened around the field with a thick red rose in his mouth, grinning from ear to ear and jesting with the crowd. He was finally at ease.
"This wasn't the first week where we heard people say negative things about us as an offense," said Cook, according to CBSSports.com. "I think we were underdogs in the majority of the games we played this year. It really didn't affect us."
Au contraire, Mr. Cook. Being an underdog could not have affected you more—both as a team and as an individual. The moment you were benched at Notre Dame, the second Maxwell's drive came up short, both you and your offense were cast aside as frauds. Since that moment, you have proven to be anything but.
That can't be a coincidence.