Though Andrew Maxwell had his ups and downs this season, and probably more of the latter, we assumed he would still go into 2013 as Michigan State's starting quarterback. On early Sunday morning (Eastern and Central time) we learned again that it's always dangerous to make assumptions.
When the Spartans trailed TCU 16-14 with a little more than two minutes left in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Saturday night, redshirt freshman Connor Cook trotted onto the field for the game-deciding drive, not Maxwell. The move paid off for Mark Dantonio and his staff, as Cook led the team on an eight-play, 45-yard drive that led to Dan Conroy's winning 47-yard field goal with 1:01 left.
"We had to go with a guy that had moved us a little bit," Dantonio told reporters afterward. "Maybe more importantly, we felt like he could scramble a little better than Andrew. We needed to get in field goal position. So that's the way we went.”
It was a bit surprising to see Cook come in for a series during the first half, since he had not thrown a pass since the Central Michigan game in Week 2, when he tossed a pick six. But getting the youngster a little bit of work to prepare him for next year made sense.
What was more surprising was that the offense moved much better with Cook in the game. He guided the team on a 90-yard scoring drive for Michigan State's first touchdown of the game in the third quarter -- the longest postseason scoring drive in program history. Though Le'Veon Bell provided much of the yardage on that march, Cook connected with Aaron Burbridge for a 15-yard touchdown pass.
Maxwell went just 6-for-15 for 28 yards, or one fewer passing yard than Bell managed on a trick play out of the Wildcat. Cook's numbers weren't great, either (4-for-11, 47 yards), but the offense did seem to find a spark with him in there.
Maxwell, who sat for three years behind Kirk Cousins, looked to be making some progress during the middle of the season. But he completed only 43 percent of his passes in his final four games, with four interceptions. He had several passes bounce off the hands of defenders in the bowl game. You have to wonder if the season-long struggles of his offensive line and the inability of his receivers to consistently catch the ball caused damage to Maxwell's confidence, but his decision-making also raised questions.
There is little doubt, however, that a full-fledged quarterback competition, if not controversy, will dominate the Spartans' offseason conversation. Redshirt freshman Tyler O’Connor and 2013 commit Damion Terry -- an intriguing option because he's a dual-threat guy -- will try to get into the mix as well. Dantonio had hinted at some changes to the offense at the end of the regular season, and offensive coordinator Dan Roushar hinted at more quarterback runs. Cook looked far more comfortable moving outside the pocket against TCU than Maxwell did.
Backup quarterbacks are always the most popular guy on campus, and it remains to be seen if Cook can perform at a consistently high level. But at the very least, Michigan State will have much more competition at the position than it did last offseason, and that should only help all the contenders for the job.
Maxwell will be the incumbent but probably won't be the favorite among fans. It's imperative that the Spartans find someone to lead a respectable passing game, because even with Bell likely bolting for the NFL, the vast majority of the offense returns. The defense should remain one of the best in the Big Ten. Michigan State's schedule should allow it to contend for a Legends Division title, but only if the offense -- which even in the bowl win punted on its first eight possessions -- improves exponentially.
We had assumed all along it would be Maxwell's job to lead that improvement project as a senior. Now, all we're sure about is that Michigan State's quarterback situation is a lot more interesting.