- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Backup quarterbacks are always the most popular guys on campus. They offer the potential of the unknown, a possible cure for all the things nagging fans about their team's offense.
And then they get their shot to play, and that popularity quickly vanishes.
At least that's the way it usually goes. But as Indiana and Michigan State get ready for their biggest nonconference games of the year on Saturday, they will be led by two guys who began the season as second man in at quarterback.
Michigan State's quarterback carousel seemed to be spinning out of control this time a week ago, when Mark Dantonio once again opened up the competition. But at long last, the position may be settled after sophomore Connor Cook threw for 202 yards and four touchdown passes in a 55-17 win over Youngstown State. Sure, it was an FCS opponent, but consider that the Spartans had only four touchdown passes in their five previous games combined dating back to last year.
"It was fun to see a bunch of different guys make plays," Cook told ESPN.com. "Everybody was having a good time, and guys were feeding off each other. I'm glad we finally got the rock rolling."
Michigan State has a long way to go before its passing game ranks among the top half of the Big Ten. But Cook brings a little more swagger to the offense. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, he's been described as a gunslinger for his fearlessness in making throws into tight spaces, and he can make more plays on the move than former starter Andrew Maxwell.
"If you lack confidence, something's wrong with you as a quarterback," Cook said. "You've always got to believe in yourself and your ability to go out there and make plays."
Cook will need that confidence this week as the 3-0 Spartans play at Notre Dame. Dantonio says it's a huge moment for Cook in making his first road start in a difficult environment, one that should prepare him well for Big Ten play down the road.
"Connor Cook is always a guy that moves forward," Dantonio said. "He's not going to back down from a challenge. He's pretty light in terms of how he approaches things. He's going to do the best he can and have fun with it. I think that's good right now for his mindset as he goes into his first big away game."
Indiana will play at home for the fourth straight week but will take on its first AQ team when 2-0 Missouri comes to Bloomington. Nate Sudfeld should make just his second career start for the Hoosiers, though it seems like he's been starting a lot longer.
The sophomore played often last year as Cameron Coffman's backup, and he logged far more time than starter Tre Roberson in Indiana's first two games. But Sudfeld didn't get his first start until last week against Bowling Green.
"He had always come off the bench and always been a guy who played well after maybe seeing some things," coach Kevin Wilson said. "But I thought that after the way he played in the previous game against Navy, he deserved to go in there first."
Wilson has approached his delicate quarterback situation carefully. He had a three-way preseason competition between Sudfeld, Coffman -- who threw for 2,700 yards last year -- and Roberson, who was the starter before he broke his leg early last year. Sudfeld and Roberson are both sophomores, and Wilson likely doesn't want Roberson -- an important recruit for the program out of Indianapolis and a big-time athlete -- to get frustrated and consider transferring. He insists that all three guys still play a major role on the team this season.
But it's getting harder and harder to deny that Sudfeld is the main guy. He has thrown for over 300 yards in each of his last two games, including a 335-yard showing in last week's win. He leads all Big Ten quarterbacks in passing yards and touchdowns, and ranks seventh nationally in pass efficiency. He's also tied for first in the FBS in most completions over 20 yards, with 19 of them.
"He's been on the money on some of those deep balls," Hoosiers offensive coordinator Seth Littrell said. "He's got a great touch."
The 6-5 Sudfeld wound up at Indiana in part because of Rich Rodriguez. He originally committed to Arizona, where Littrell had been the offensive coordinator under Mike Stoops. But when Stoops and his staff got fired, the Wildcats hired Rodriguez, whose style of play did not fit Sudfeld, a prototypical pocket passer.
The Littrell connection helped get Sudfeld to IU, and the quarterback has steadily improved. Littrell credits that to Sudfeld's work ethic.
"You'll be up there watching film at night, and he'll come in and want to sit down with you and watch cutups," Littrell said. "As you're game planning, he'll be talking through some of the things he likes. He wants to be involved."
Both Cook and Sudfeld are more heavily involved in their teams' respective plans we have anticipated a few weeks ago. Throw in the success of Kenny Guiton at Ohio State, and Big Ten backup quarterbacks may never have been more popular.
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