When Michigan State sophomore quarterback Connor Cook tossed an ill-advised second-quarter pass that was returned 40 yards for a touchdown by Stanford linebacker Kevin Anderson, it could have all unraveled for the fourth-ranked Spartans in their first Rose Bowl trip since 1988.
The pick-six and ensuing extra point put MSU down 17-7 with just 2:51 remaining before halftime. Cook had been lucky enough to have Anderson drop what could have been an interception in the first quarter, but wasn’t so lucky the second time.
To top it off, the Spartans were also having trouble running the ball against the Cardinal defense—and Cook was going to need to connect through the air if MSU was going to make up its first double-digit deficit of the campaign before 95,173 onlookers in Pasadena, many of them wearing green and white.
So what did Cook do?
The Hinckley, Ohio, native marched MSU 75 yards down the field in seven plays for seven points, connecting with fullback Trevon Pendleton from two yards out with just 28 ticks left in the half to put the green and white down by three after 30 minutes.
And he was just getting started in Big Ten champion MSU’s 24-20 win over No. 5 Stanford in the 100th Rose Bowl game.
"It's a special time for all Spartans, and we came here in force," MSU head coach Mark Dantonio told the Associated Press (via msuspartans.com). "I'm very happy for our football team, the resilience we showed all season long."
No. 18 showed perhaps the most resilience of all, less than a month after guiding MSU (13-1) to a 34-24 victory over then-No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.
Cook got the Spartans in position for a tying field goal early in the third quarter against Stanford, while also getting some more luck a couple more times in the second half. Another Stanford player dropped what again seemed to be a sure interception, and another Cardinal pick was wiped out by a penalty.
Early in the final frame, after the Spartans shook off a fumble by halfback Jeremy Langford deep in Stanford territory, Cook gave MSU its first and only lead of the afternoon.
And the only one it would need.
After a 19-yard punt return by Macgarrett Kings Jr., Cook drove MSU 27 yards in three plays, finishing things off with a 25-yard scoring toss down the middle to wide receiver Tony Lippett to put State up 24-17.
Langford (23 rushes, 84 yards, TD) and the Spartan defense then ground down the Cardinal (11-3), who managed a field goal with 4:15 remaining to pull within four points—but it was as close as Stanford would get.
After the Cardinal was stopped on a last-ditch 4th-and-one try with more than a minute remaining, on a tremendous play by linebackers Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris, Cook took two knees and then senior replacement Andrew Maxwell took one to close out MSU’s first Rose Bowl win in 26 years, and the Big Ten’s first triumph in the Granddaddy of Them All since 2000.
Yet in time-honored sports tradition, Cook gave kudos to his teammates rather than talk specifically about anything he accomplished Wednesday.
“Our defense, they have been doing their thing the entire year," he told the Detroit News. "They’ve been shutting out our opponents and then our offense has really stepped up and become a lot more balanced in the pass game and run game. That’s allowed for success.”
That offensive balance began and ended with State's sophomore signal-caller. Cook completed 22 of 36 passes for a career-high 322 yards, along with two scores and one interception, and completed passes to nine different teammates.
That was after he earned Big Ten MVP accolades after finishing 24-of-40 for 304 yards for three scores and one pick against the Buckeyes last month, a game in which MSU led 17-0 before OSU came back to take a lead that Cook and company short-circuited with another 17-point run.
“It’s awesome to watch Connor Cook,” MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said afterward to the Lansing State Journal. “He’s got a short memory. He threw that pick-six, gave up seven points there and I said, ‘The great thing about Connor, is he’ll just wipe it right off.’ ”
He still got the job done on Jan. 1 after making a couple of mistakes and getting a little bit of luck in the process.
You have to be good to win, and you also have to be lucky. Once again, Connor Cook was both for the Spartans.
And now, they're both Rose Bowl champions.