Michigan State is 4-1 against teams in the Associated Press’s Top 1o since 2013. Perhaps not coincidentally, 2013 is when Hinckley, Ohio’s Connor Cook took over as the Spartans starting quarterback.
Cook has amassed an overall record of 32-4 as a starter, which makes him the winningest quarterback currently in the FBS. (He tied Stanford’s Kevin Hogan last week.) Cook is 21-2 against the Big Ten, and he’s just 230 yards shy of the Michigan State record for total offense. If he plays, he could break Kirk Cousin’s mark of 9,004 yards when he lines up versus Ohio State.
If he plays…
Cook hurt his shoulder in a 24-7 win over Maryland. Although he said he was only taken out of the game for precautionary reasons, he looked to be in quite a bit of pain. And the numbers he posted before he was pulled suggest something wasn’t right. He was just 6/20 passing for 77 yards and an interception.
Truth be told, Cook’s completion percentage was down this year, even before the injury. He’s gone from 58.7 percent in 2013, to 58.1 percent in 2014, to 56.3 percent so far during this campaign.
But Cook still leads the nation’s 37th ranked passing offense. He’s limited his turnovers, only throwing 4 picks while recording 21 touchdowns. At 14.18 yards per completion, he’s 17th nationally in that category. Plus, as his record against AP Top 10 teams suggests, he’s at his best in high-pressure situations.
Of his 21 touchdown passes this year, 9 have come on 3rd down. That’s also the down on which he has the highest quarterback rating. He has yet to throw a second-half pick this season.
And the 6’4″, 220 pound signal caller has a very impressive target in receiver Aaron Burbridge. Burbridge has four 100+ yard efforts in his past five games. He leads the Big Ten in receptions per game at 6.5. He has 6 touchdown catches.
Macgarrett Kings, Jr. has another 5 touchdown catches. Meanwhile of tight end Josiah Price’s 15 receptions, 5 have wound up in the end zone.
The numbers posted by the Spartans run game, on the other hand, have been lackluster. They might be 16th in the country in terms of time of possession, but Michigan State owns the 92nd rushing offense nationally, partly as the result of the team struggling to find a replacement for Jeremy Langford, partly because they have had to use six different starting offensive line combinations this season. The juggling might continue, because starting right tackle Kodi Kieler left the Maryland game late after hurting his right arm or shoulder.
As hard as injuries have hit the Michigan State offensive line, they have absolutely hammered the defense’s secondary. Already the Spartans have lost corner Vayante Copeland and safeties Jalen Watts-Jackson and RJ Williamson to season-ending or probable season-ending injuries.
Once dubbed the “no-fly zone,” the Spartans are now allowing 243 passing yards per game, worse than 85 other FBS teams.
The defense has been stopping the run, only giving up 121 yards per game and ranking them 18th nationally. The front seven is also getting to the quarterback to the tune of almost 3 sacks per game, which puts them 13th.
You’re probably familiar with the players who lead the Spartans in sacks: Shilique Calhoun, Malik McDowell, and linebacker Riley Bullough.
Bullough is also the team leader in tackles with 79, followed by fellow linebacker Darien Harris and his 65 stops.
Despite their struggles against the pass, the Spartans are 24th in interceptions with 12, and safety Montae Nicholson has 3 of them.
Michigan State is a team that starts fast. They have outscored opponents by a combined 84 points in the first half of games, and only 22 in the second half. But they are capable of late heroics, and have 14 fourth-quarter comebacks during coach Mark Dantonio’s tenure.
So keep it tuned from opening kick to final whistle when Ohio State clashes with the Spartans Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on 97.1 The Fan.