Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Connor Cook returns to have that jackpot season with Spartans

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Big Ten preview: Connor Cook returns to have that jackpot season with Spartans

Connor Cook’s NFL Draft prospects would have been pretty darn good had he entered the draft this past spring.

He might not have been the No. 1 pick, but after leading the Big Ten with 3,214 passing yards — 27th in the country, it’s still the Big Ten, guys — and tossing 24 touchdown passes, he likely would’ve been a first-round pick.

In deciding to return for his senior season, though, he could hit the jackpot.

Cook is not only entering the 2015 season considered one of the conference’s best quarterbacks, he’s considered one of the country’s best quarterbacks, and a lot would have to go wrong to knock him out of the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. But Cook could conceivably approach that No. 1-pick status if he delivers on the expectations a lot have of him.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Spartans have earned status as national-title contenders]

In addition to the great numbers and the physical skills scouts love, Cook has proven himself a winner with few peers. After taking over as starter a few games into the 2013 season, he helped led the Spartans to a 13-1 record, a Big Ten championship and a win in the Rose Bowl, where he dazzled with 332 yards and a pair of touchdowns, earning MVP honors. Last season, he led Michigan State to an 11-2 record and a remarkable come-from-behind win in the Cotton Bowl, where he threw for 314 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

This season, he could eclipse both of those fantastic campaigns by leading the Spartans to a realistic berth in the College Football Playoff.

But coming back was certainly more than about improving his draft stock. Cook is looking to achieve what he’s yet been able to, which really isn’t that much. But as the old maxim goes, there’s always room for improvement.

“I think that Connor has done a remarkable job, extraordinary job throughout his time,” Mark Dantonio said last month during Big Ten Media Days. “Came on the scene in 2013 and capped off the season with an MVP in the Rose Bowl as a sophomore and then MVP in the Big Ten Championship game as well. This past season did an outstanding job. Very few times was he sacked, not a lot of interceptions. But there's always room for improvement. I think he's come back with the idea that there are things left to prove. And he's going to continue to take his game to a higher level. And that's exciting because I think that the makeup of our football team, I think, in general is, you know, keep trying to strive forward, keep trying to move the process forward, and be as good as you can possibly be. So high expectations from our staff and from the general public. Very high expectations. Very high expectations from he himself.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Without Pat Narduzzi, will Spartans still have elite defense?]

Cook made Michigan State one of the country’s best offensive teams a season ago. The Spartans averaged 500 yards of total offense each week (11th in the FBS) and 43 points per game (seventh). It helped that he had one of the country’s best running backs in Jeremy Langford and the Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year in Tony Lippett.

He has neither this season, which will certainly put more pressure on him. But while the skill positions around him might take a bit of a hit, the offensive line should be sensational, one of the best in America, keeping Cook upright and giving him plenty of time to make decisions and not turn the ball over.

Whatever the offense around him looks like, Cook’s expectations remain incredibly high. He’ll be expected to post numbers and win games that match or exceed the best signal-callers in college football. And it seems like he can meet those expectations.

His draft stock is high. Now it’s time to send it higher with eye-popping numbers, a boatload of wins and a run at the national championship. It’s time to hit the jackpot.

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.