A monumental, season-defining challenge awaits Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook this Saturday in Ann Arbor.
This weekend, the mobile-friendly, gun-slinging senior will be tasked with leading his No. 7-ranked Spartans (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) past the No. 12-ranked Michigan Wolverines (5-1, 2-0 B1G). The winner will have an edge in the race for a Big Ten championship and possible playoff berth.
However, the Wolverines have a slight advantage, which just so happens to include the No. 1-ranked scoring defense (6.3 PPG) and No. 2-ranked overall total defense (181.3 YPG) in college football.
They also have the No. 2-ranked passing defense (115.5 YPG) in the nation, led by junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, junior safety Delano Hill, senior Jarrod Wilson and redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers, among others.
Cook has to best that.
Sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio agrees. He knows that things won’t be easy on Saturday. But he likes Cook’s chances.
Maybe it’s because of Cook’s showing in the 2014 Rose Bowl or his poise during the 2015 Cotton Bowl? Or maybe it was that Big Ten title? A 29-3 record?! What about 1,334 yards, 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions?
All of that works, too.
“Very confident,” Dantonio said of Cook’s ability to contend with Michigan’s safeties and corners. “But you know, they’re tight windows to get the ball in there–we’re going to have to make great catches. We’ve proven that our wide receivers can do that.
We’ve made those type of catches, and we’ll have to continue to make those to be successful as a football team. Michigan’s playing very well in the secondary right now, as I just said: tight windows, tight coverage.”
Dantonio is right on both fronts. His receivers have made incredible catches on a regular basis throughout the years.
As for the tight coverage… that’s probably putting it lightly. So that means that Aaron Burbridge, one of the best receivers in the country, has to play like, well, one of the best receivers in the country. So far, he’s done that. The senior has 34 catches for 560 yards and four touchdowns.
He’ll be valuable.
And if he’s double-covered, which is very likely, Cook’s other options–R.J. Shelton and Macgarrett Kings, Jr.–will have to flash their trademark quickness and hands in order to throw off a ball-hawking secondary that’s helped seal three straight shutouts.
It’s also the same defense that’s allowed two passing touchdowns all year.
Video: Jourdan Lewis breaks down technique and route recognition as they pertain to Cook’s Spartans
With two interceptions (including a pick-6 vs. Northwestern) and an NCAA-leading nine pass breakups, Lewis–the Big Ten Player of the Week–has put himself on a pedestal, one reserved for the upper crust of cover men.
Ask Peppers; he’ll tell you that Lewis is “the best corner in the country.” Lewis is the backbone of the defensive backfield, there is no debating that. But with five pass breakups and 21 tackles (4.5 TFL), Peppers has certainly done his job to help lock down passing lanes and make opponents pay for going over the middle.
Hill has 17 tackles, two for a loss. Wilson leads all defensive backs with a team-high 23 tackles.
Cook has to be in peak condition on Saturday; but then again, so do the Wolverines. Cook’s yet to face such a defense this season, and the Wolverines have yet to face a Heisman-esque quarterback this fall.
“He’s a great quarterback, and he’s done big things at Michigan State–that’s a good team,” said Hill. “We’re just going to prepare like we do every week and just go out there and do our best.”
As explained with Lewis and demonstrated in the above video, Cook likes to roll out and torch unsuspecting defensive backs.
When asked how he specifically plans to counter such action, Hill took the direct approach, saying “We’re just focusing on our keys and we’ll play our ball–that’s it.”
So far, that recipe has worked well for the Wolverines. It’d be wise for them to stick to that game plan while facing one of the most prolific passers in Big Ten history–otherwise, the Spartans’ streak could be extended to seven wins in the past nine meetings.
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