Michigan State got its ninth win of the season Saturday, but it's the status of quarterback Connor Cook that earned the day's biggest headlines in East Lansing.
Cook came out of the game after the Spartans' first offensive drive, replaced on the next by backup Tyler O'Connor, who led a scoring drive. Cook returned but was then hit hard and injured his shoulder. He was again removed from the game. Then he reentered, only to look obviously affected by the shoulder injury, playing poorly the remainder of the first half. O'Connor played the entire second half, as Michigan State went on to easily beat Maryland, 24-7, at Spartan Stadium.
Head coach Mark Dantonio said after the game that it was very likely Cook will play next weekend in the big showdown against Ohio State, but surely Cook's health will remain a dominating topic of conversation in the upcoming week.
Cook's play made it obvious he was impacted by the injury, but footage of him screaming in pain on the sideline provided a more eyebrow-raising visual aide.
Cook on the sideline with the trainer, and this is obviously not good. https://t.co/FFuDB6ogfS
— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) November 14, 2015
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Cook finished his day after the first half, having completed just six of his 20 passing attempts for 77 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
Surprisingly, he said after the game that the injury didn't bother him at all, despite it seeming otherwise.
"It really didn't affect me at all," Cook said. "There was a little pain here and there, but it was nothing where I couldn't deliver a pass."
The Spartans scored early on the drive led by O'Connor, and it was the backup who hit Macgarrett Kings Jr. for a first-quarter touchdown. That was answered on the next drive, when Maryland got an apparent scoring play from Will Likely, who took a screen pass into the end zone. That play was reviewed and overturned to put the Terps at the one-yard line, but Brandon Ross punched in the touchdown on the next play.
Michigan State turned the ball over three times on three consecutive drives in the first half — an LJ Scott fumble, a turnover on downs and Cook's interception — but none of the ensuing Maryland drives turned into points. The Spartans, however, scored all 17 of their first-half points off turnovers. The first touchdown drive followed a Terps fumble, Riley Bullough returned a Perry Hills interception 44 yards for an touchdown, and another Hills interception set up a field goal as time ran out on the first half.
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On Michigan State's first drive of the third quarter, the Spartans ran 11 consecutive run plays and capped it with a Gerald Holmes touchdown run, the only points of the final 30 minutes.
It was an ugly day for both offenses. Michigan State turned the ball over three times and totaled just 262 yards of offense, only 121 coming through the air. Maryland turned the ball over five times, adding three more interceptions to its nation-most total, which is up to 28 after Saturday's game. The Terps amassed 289 total yards, just 107 of which came on the ground. The teams combined to convert just 10 of 32 third-down attempts.
Michigan State improved to 9-1 with the victory, following up its first loss of the season last weekend with a back-on-track win. The Spartans have the biggest game of their season next weekend at the undefeated Buckeyes. A win — as well as a win in the regular-season finale with Penn State — would clinch a Big Ten East Division title and send the Spartans to the Big Ten Championship Game. Hence why the availability and effectiveness of Cook, the conference's top quarterback, is such a big deal.
The loss sent Maryland to 2-8, and the Terps still are without a win in conference play. They're final regular-season games come against Indiana and Rutgers.