Spartans QB Cook masters mental game

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
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LOS ANGELES -- As a father, Chris Cook always provided his son, Connor, with positive reinforcement, because that's what parents do.

As a former college football player, the elder Cook also knew how such statements can translate to on-field performance. So he and his wife, Donna, a former basketball player at Cincinnati, told Connor that he would be special, that he would become Michigan State's starting quarterback, that he would lead the Spartans to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl. They repeated the messages, even during MSU's drawn-out and wayward quarterback competition, which Connor calls "the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life."

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsSince being named the permanent starter to start conference play, quarterback Connor Cook and Michigan State are 9-0.
Last week, while home in Ohio, Connor, a Big Ten title-winning, Rose Bowl-bound quarterback, acknowledged what most parents love to hear: You were right.

"He says, 'At that time, I thought you guys were just talking, trying to pump me up.' Now to see this, I don't know, it's been a magical year," said Chris Cook, who played tight end at Indiana. "All these things have come true."

There's certainly magic around Cook, who will lead Michigan State's offense on Wednesday against Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO. You could see it in Big Ten play, when he passed for 2,012 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine double-digit wins. You could see it when he bounced back from bad passes with precise ones, when he made tough throws on the move, when he spread the ball around.

You could see it on the biggest stage, when Cook put up career numbers in the Big Ten championship, reminding receiver Bennie Fowler of former Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins.

The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Cook always had enough skill and confidence. But like any young quarterback, he had to master his own mind.

"We're an athletic family, so we're big into the mental game," Chris Cook said. "At this level, what separates good players from great players? A lot of it's between your ears. Hell, the challenges Connor went through, if he doesn't keep a positive attitude, your mind can get the best of you."

Connor Cook's head was swimming during a competition that began in preseason camp and spilled into September. Andrew Maxwell, last season's starter, took most of the snaps with the first-team offense and started the opener. Cook started the following week against South Florida but was replaced by Tyler O'Connor, who was replaced by Maxwell.

Michigan State's quarterback situation had gone from shaky to messy.

"It takes a couple series to establish a rhythm," Cook said. "So when we're splitting it up, I get one series and Maxwell has one, Tyler. You don't know when you're going to get pulled. ... That's kind of stressful."

Cook started Sept. 21 at Notre Dame, struggling early before settling down. After a three-and-out, Cook gave way to Maxwell for the final drive with 2:11 left and MSU down 17-13. The drive went nowhere (backward, actually) and the Spartans suffered their first loss.

Afterward, a despondent Cook said he wished the coaches had shown more faith in him for the final possession. Even now, he calls it "heartbreaking."

"I'd want to be that guy to lead Michigan State down in a hostile environment in a historic stadium to beat the Irish," he said. "To not get that opportunity, it hurt."

During the open week that followed, Cook's coaches decided he deserved the opportunity. Coach Mark Dantonio met with Cook to clear the air and reinforce his support.

"We said as an offensive staff that Connor is our guy," coordinator Dave Warner said. "We've got to go with him the entire way. That was a point where our offense began to grow."

For Cook, it's when "the stress went out the window."

The following week, he passed for 277 yards and two touchdowns against Iowa. He completed 71 percent of his attempts against Indiana and 93.8 percent -- a team record -- against Illinois.

The magic surfaced when a Cook pass tipped by two Illinois defenders landed in Fowler's arms for a touchdown, or hit a Northwestern defender in the back and went to Fowler for another score. Other likely interceptions fell harmlessly to the ground.

In 925 plays, Cook has had just five interceptions and two fumbles.

"That was his growth," quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. "He moved in the pocket, threw the ball away when he needed to."

Michigan State identified, offered and landed Cook early, as he committed in April of his junior year. His recruitment wasn't as quiet as it has been portrayed -- Chris Cook said Wisconsin, Iowa and other major-conference programs showed interest -- but he didn't generate the hype of other standout Ohio prep quarterbacks like Braxton Miller and Cardale Jones.

"You could always see the potential in him," said John Carroll University coach Tom Arth, who has worked with Cook the past four summers. "He's a tremendous athlete and a very natural player. He's a special individual who has a great work ethic.

"He can be great. We've seen a little bit of that this year."

Connor was at his best in the Big Ten championship game, recording his first career 300-yard passing performance and firing three touchdowns. With MSU down 24-20 early in the fourth quarter, Cook led an 8-play, 90-yard scoring drive, completing four passes for 76 yards and a touchdown.

MSU won 34-24 and Cook earned game MVP honors.

"He was pointing out things that he was seeing, making adjustments on the fly," Fowler said. "That's just like how Kirk [Cousins] was."

As time expired in Indy, Cook ran to the stands and embraced his parents and sister, Jackie, a former basketball player at Old Dominion. The family celebrations have become a tradition after Spartans wins.

"Those are special moments," Chris Cook said.

There could be another Wednesday at the Rose Bowl.

"Before I was the quarterback I would talk to my parents and they would tell me, 'You're going to be the guy, you're going to lead your team to the Rose Bowl,'" Connor said. "To finally be here now ... it's truly a blessing."

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