Michigan State traveled to Iowa for its 2013 Big Ten football opener with an unsettled quarterback situation.
Sophomore Connor Cook had started the week before and played inconsistently in a 17-13 loss at Notre Dame. But Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio decided to stick with Cook. And everything changed.
“I really feel like his coming-out party was against us in 2013,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Sunday. “At that time they were rotating quarterbacks a little bit. He had played well prior to that game, but I thought he played really well against us. It didn’t seem like he missed a pass, and he hasn’t looked back since that time.”
Cook rallied the Spartans from a 14-10 halftime deficit for a 26-14 victory, completing 25 of 44 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns. That was the first of 10 straight victories to complete a 13-1 season for Michigan State — a season that ended with a 34-24 triumph over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game and a 24-20 victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
Since that day at Kinnick Stadium, the Spartans have won 35 of 38 games heading into Saturday’s matchup with Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The Hawkeyes, 12-0 for the first time in school history, will be out to win their 12th Big Ten title and first since 2004. But Cook and Michigan State stand in their way. Saturday will be the first meeting between these schools since Cook’s career-changing game at Kinnick Stadium two season ago.
“What I remember is the week before we played Notre Dame,” Dantonio said. “That was first opportunity on a big stage away from home. He played well in the third game (against Youngstown State). But then the Notre Dame game maybe he slipped back a little bit. I made a decision to go with him full go. And he played an outstanding game.”
As Ferentz prepared for that game, he watched a team that had a dynamite defense and a struggling offense.
“The thing I remember is that early in the season, it looked like the receivers were allergic to catching the ball,” Ferentz said. “They were not catching the ball very consistently. But it seemed like our game, that’s where they all came together. The receivers played well. And Connor Cook really hit his stride.”
Cook has thrown for 2,730 yards, 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions during his senior season. Michigan State enters Saturday’s game 11-1.
Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, who had one career start entering this season, is now 13-0 as a starter. The only other two quarterbacks to ever win their first 13 career starts were Jameis Winston of Florida State and Cam Newton of Auburn.
“Anybody who is 12-0 (this year) and done what he’s done, he’s won in close games,” Dantonio said. “A great game manager. He shows toughness and leadership. He throws a good ball. A very catchable ball.”
Beathard, a junior, has thrown for 2,534 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions this season. That's the kind of season Ferentz hoped for when he picked Beathard as the starter over Jake Rudock in January.
“We felt like C.J. was the best fit for this football team at the time,” Ferentz said. “And I think the thing we’ve noticed since that time is he’s not only accepted that responsibility, but he’s really embraced it. His leadership traits have really taken off. Two things that have stood out are his toughness and then his poise. And those are things you don’t always find out the total story about in practice.”