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Meet the Spartans: Passing game

The following is the fourth of five installments of The Stanford Daily’s “Meet the Spartans” series, which will give an in-depth look at Michigan State leading into the 100th Rose Bowl Game between No. 4 Michigan State and No. 5 Stanford on Jan. 1. Today’s piece will focus on the Spartans’ passing game. Come back to stanforddaily.com/category/sports tomorrow for a look at the Spartans’ special teams.

Part 1: Secondary

Part 2: Front seven

Part 3: Running game

Part 5: Special teams

The low-down: At the beginning of the season, Michigan State didn’t have a quarterback capable of leading the offense and the Spartans’ best offense was their stellar defense. However, sophomore quarterback Connor Cook took the reins in week three and made huge strides throughout the season to turn the passing game into a viable threat capable of complementing the Spartans’ strong rushing attack.

Sophomore Connor Cook took over the Spartans' quarterbacking duties midseason and helped right the ship on offense in 2013, just like Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan did in 2012. (Michigan State Athletics)

Sophomore Connor Cook took over the Spartans’ quarterbacking duties midseason and helped right the ship on offense in 2013, just like Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan did in 2012. (Michigan State Athletics)

Best player: Because the Spartans don’t necessarily have any superstar receivers to create mismatches and open downfield opportunities, the passing game revolves around Cook. Like Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, Cook has not put up eye-popping numbers but has shown the ability to take advantage of his team’s strong rushing attack to take accurate shots downfield when needed, adding an element of explosiveness to the offense that proved to be big against the weaker secondaries of the Big Ten. Cook has quietly put together a solid 2,423-yard season to go with 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions on the year.

Best performance: After a disappointing 107-yard showing against conference cellar-dweller Purdue, Cook rebounded with his most efficient performance of the year against Illinois in a 42-3 rout. Although Cook’s 208 passing yards were not a season-high, he had complete control of the offense throughout as he averaged 13.9 yards per completion in an extremely effective 15-of-16 effort. He accounted for three touchdowns — including a beautiful 47-yard rainbow to Keith Mumphery in the fourth quarter— as he showcased his ability to throw the deep ball, utilize short passes when under pressure and take advantage of play action.

Worst performance: How about the whole first third of the season? Aside from a 55-17 beatdown of FCS foe Youngstown State, Michigan State essentially had no offense in its first four games of the season. In the first two games against the formidable, intimidating defenses of Western Michigan and South Florida, Sparty’s passing game accounted for just 210 yards and no touchdowns. Ouch. Later in the season during the Connor Cook era, the aforementioned 14-0 squeaker against Purdue was also startlingly bad.

Highlights of the season: Cook and his receivers shredded the Ohio State secondary in the first eight minutes of the second quarter to give Michigan State a commanding (at the time) 17-0 lead over the undefeated Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship, showing just how far the Spartans offense had progressed throughout the season. Highlighting the charge were this 72-yard beauty of a pitch-and-catch from Cook to Mumphery…

…and later on, this nifty sequence of three completions, the last of which went for 33 yards from Cook to Tony Lippett for six more points.

Biggest questions: Can Michigan State’s offensive line hold up to Stanford’s relentless front seven and give Cook time to find his receivers? Although the Spartan line has only allowed 13 sacks all season, it has been susceptible to letting blitzers into the backfield in passing situations. In those scenarios, Cook has shown below-average mobility and when unable to find his checkdown receiver to get rid of the ball, he has also shown poor accuracy on his passes.

Matchup with Stanford: Like the Cardinal, Michigan State is a primarily run-first team with a pro-style attack. However, because Stanford’s front seven has been so successful against the run all season, don’t be surprised if head coach Mark Dantonio has to rely on Cook to win this game with his arm to a greater extent than he would be comfortable with. In that case, look for Stanford’s front seven and defensive coordinator Derek Mason’s blitz packages to harass Cook all afternoon. Although Stanford’s secondary has given up yards at times, it has proven that it can keep opponents out of the end zone. It’s going to be a surprise if the scoreboard operator at the Rose Bowl is busy on Jan. 1.

Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Do-Hyoung Park

Do-Hyoung Park is the Managing Editor of Sports at The Stanford Daily. He has also previously served as a sports desk editor, the summer sports editor and a writer for football, baseball, women's soccer, cross country and men's and women's swimming and diving. Do-Hyoung is a sophomore originally from Seoul, South Korea and raised in Saint Paul, Minnesota pursuing a major in chemical engineering. To contact him, please email him at dpark027 'at' stanford.edu.