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."
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.”
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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.”
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.