It’s easy to look at a player’s stats and say he’s a shoe-in for a Heisman Trophy or a conference player of the year. There are those times that we get a bit crazy over stats.
Leadership and the ability to be the driving force of a team’s run to a championship are hard to calculate, though, and it is often reflected in the most important stat of all: Wins.
In the world of Big Ten Football in 2015, Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Ohio State’s JT Barrett proved this past week and throughout their careers that they have a knack for making their teams better.
With all of the injuries on the Michigan State offensive line and inconsistency from the team’s running backs, Cook has elevated his level of play, especially in the last three weeks. The Spartans wins over Rutgers, Indiana and Michigan are classic examples of Cook putting his team on his back.
Despite facing constant pressure from the Indiana defense, Cook had career highs in passing attempts (52), completions (30) and yardage with 398. He also has a career high in touchdowns with four. He was two yards shy of the school record in passing yards, but did set a single-game school record for total offense with 416 yards.
Even in the midst of being sacked four times, Cook just kept firing and willing his team to an 8-0 record overall, 4-0 in the Big Ten.
For the last three games, opposing defenses have shut down the Spartans rushing game and have pinned their ears back to come after Cook, yet he has still managed to move the Spartans offense. Somehow, in the past three wins he’s had three straight 300-yard passing games and seven touchdown passes.
Especially lately, the Spartans have struggled on both sides of the ball. The fifth-year senior Cook was still making big plays to win games. He’s 31-3 as the starting quarterback for the Spartans and many of those victories have involved him making big plays in some big games—whether it’s the 2013 Big Ten Championship, the 2014 Rose Bowl or the 2015 Cotton Bowl.
“He’s used to being successful, so he has confidence,” said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. “He’s able to take a bad play and flip it, play through it and come out the back end playing very well. He could have a poor first quarter and play lights out three quarters in a row. It’s not going to bother him.”
Meanwhile in Columbus, if you want to get an idea of how well-respected Ohio State sophomore quarterback JT Barrett is among his teammates: Back in late August before head coach Urban Meyer named his starting quarterback, Barrett was named a team captain by his teammates and assistant coaches.
That was significant because of the way Barrett took over for an injured Braxton Miller last season, winning 11-of-12 games before getting hurt himself in the final regular-season against arch-rival Michigan.
Last season, Barrett had a school-record 3,772 total yards—2,834 passing and 938 yards rushing. He had 45 total touchdowns-34 passing and 11 rushing, and was named the Big Ten’s Player of the Year in 2014.
Unfortunately for Barrett, he wasn’t named the Buckeyes starting quarterback to start the season. Cardale Jones started the first seven games of the season, but he was inconsistent. Meyer named Barrett the starting quarterback for last weekend’s 49-7 blowout of Rutgers.
With his ability to run and pass, the sophomore restored order to an inconsistent Ohio State offense that struggled with Jones at the helm. Against the Scarlet Knights, he passed for 223 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for 101 yards and two more scores.
Barrett’s ability to use his legs from the quarterback position made things easier for running back Ezekiel Elliot, who gained 142 yards and scored two touchdowns in the Buckeyes read-option attack. As a unit, Ohio State had 528 yards of total offense.
“I think you ask a defensive coach, anytime you’ve got a guy that can throw and run, that’s a problem,” Meyer said. “You see loaded defenses where the coverages aren’t very complicated. That’s what J.T. gives us.”
Like a point-guard in basketball, Barrett makes his team better by getting everyone involved. Meyer made the switch after Barrett had two touchdowns passing and two rushing in the win over Penn State the previous week.
To paraphrase Big Ten Network analyst Matt Millen, Barrett has a feel for the game makes other better around him. That’s something the Buckeyes are going to need in November when they have the double-whammy of facing No. 6 Michigan State and No. 16 Michigan in back-to-back weeks.