Big Ten

Tough quarterbacks lead Hawkeyes, Spartans into Big Ten Championship Game

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Tough quarterbacks lead Hawkeyes, Spartans into Big Ten Championship Game

INDIANAPOLIS — It’s almost kind of surprising Connor Cook and C.J. Beathard made it to this weekend’s Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. Not their teams. Them, specifically.

Cook landed on his shoulder after a crushing hit in a win over Maryland three weeks ago, sat out the second half and didn’t play in Michigan State’s biggest game of the season, a win over Ohio State.

Beathard was hobbling around Ryan Field in an October win over Northwestern, Iowa’s best win of the year, and was so banged up that Kirk Ferentz said he envisioned playing Beathard in the shotgun the entire month of November to protect him.

But here they are, the two quarterbacks leading their teams into a high-stakes showdown Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

It’s been a pair of great seasons for these guys, great enough to earn them All-Big Ten honors as the conference’s top two signal-callers. Cook was the Big Ten Quarterback of the Year and the quarterback on the All-Big Ten First Team. Beathard was the quarterback on the All-Big Ten Second Team.

"(This game) really has the two best quarterbacks in the conference according to the voting, and I wouldn't disagree, two best conference quarterbacks playing in the game,” Ferentz said Friday ahead of the league title game. “It's really more than that. You have two really good teams. Typically on really good teams, you have good quarterbacks. I think that's the case with both of us. They may feature their guy a little bit more, but I think it is a team effort on their part.

“Really happy for C.J. certainly and have great respect for Connor Cook, he's a tremendous football player."

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten Championship Game preview: 10 things to know about Hawkeyes-Spartans]

But more than deep throws and leadership of their respective offenses is that toughness factor. Both Cook and Beathard have shown it this season, playing through injuries. Ferentz said Friday that Beathard probably still isn’t 100 percent. Mark Dantonio doesn’t talk about injuries, but it would be surprising to learn that Cook was at full health considering he didn’t take a snap in the Ohio State game just two weeks ago.

And isn’t that fitting? Whether it’s reality or not, the Big Ten has a reputation of a more old-school league, one that likes to run the ball and play in the trenches. If the focus is going to be on the quarterbacks in the Big Ten Championship Game, doesn’t it make sense that they're two guys who will play through anything and display the ultimate toughness?

"First thing I'd say about C.J. is his degree of mental toughness and physical toughness, I don't know if I've been around a player that could surpass it,” Ferentz said. “He's an amazing young guy. Very soft spoken, humble, unbelievable young man. His mental toughness is really extraordinary. He played in that game (against Northwestern), had to come out. I don't know how much longer he could have come out when he did come out.

“I think really the surprise of the story to me is we had a bye week following. We thought he would be a little bit better moving forward. I'm always looking at the bad side as a coach, the pessimistic side. I pictured having him in the shotgun the entire month of November, kind of like that one game with (Byron) Leftwich back at Marshall one time. For whatever reason he has gotten better. I'm not saying he's 100-percent healthy right now, but he's a lot healthier than he was in Chicago. Seems like he's gotten better each and every week.

“Real credit to him. He's a guy that doesn’t want to come off the field. Everything that he does is motivated to help the team, which is what you would hope your quarterback would be all about.”

[MORE BIG TEN: What a turnaround it's been for 'New Kirk' and the Hawkeyes]

Surely Cook’s coach feels the same way about his quarterback, but Dantonio spoke instead about Cook’s drive Friday.

Cook perhaps would have been a first-round draft pick had he opted to leave school and head to the NFL Draft after the conclusion of last season. But as Michigan State players have said all year long, they weren’t happy with the way last season turned out. They had their sights set on a national championship and didn’t reach the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Well, they’re a win away from reaching the Playoff this season, and that’s why Cook came back to school. His drive to reach the goals the team set for itself wouldn’t let him leave with unfinished business.

"I think when I talked to him, it was basically about doing things like this, having opportunities to possibly go beyond where we were last year and win a championship. He wanted to win another championship, were the exact words that he said to me,” Dantonio said. “He likes college. He likes the college environment. He likes his teammates. So really, I mean, he was pretty grounded, I thought, in the way he approached everything and made the decision pretty quickly to come back.

“We say all the time, in order for us to be where we're at right at this point and place, our seniors have probably had their best years as a group, or have had to. I would say Connor Cook is exactly in that vein. He's probably had his best year as a quarterback at Michigan State this year.”

[MORE BIG TEN: With Big Ten title game win, Spartans could reach peak of the mountain]

Saturday night’s stage won’t be anything new for Cook, who’s been playing under the brightest lights for three seasons now. As a sophomore he led the Spartans to a win in both the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl. As a junior, it was a win in the Cotton Bowl. Cook will be ready for the big-time atmosphere Saturday night, and that experience will serve him well as he hopes to get his team to an even bigger stage.

"Connor has played on a big stage and has succeeded on big stages really from his sophomore year on up,” Dantonio said. “We're not going to be intimidated by the situation. I don't think Iowa will either. They played in big games on big stages. That's what this conference is about. You play in front of a lot of people, every team, on national TV, every team. So you get a lot of media exposure, things of that nature. I think inevitably you get used to playing on those stages.

“In Connor Cook's case, I think he's done very well on a big stage, and we'll obviously need him to play very well (Saturday).”

Both teams will need their quarterbacks to do well if they want to win a conference championship and punch a ticket to the College Football Playoff. And while both defenses boast challenges for the guys under center — including a few mean pass-rushers — one thing’s certain: If Cook or Beathard go down on Saturday night, expect them to get right back up.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.