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Michigan State, Connor Cook Need to Step up Their Game

PHOTO: Associated Press

Entering summer camp in advance of the 2015 football season, all seemed well with the Michigan State Spartans—and with their quarterback, Connor Cook.

Coming off a spectacular 11-2 season that was capped off with a thrilling Cotton Bowl win over Baylor, the Spartans were ranked among the nation’s top 10 and were expected by many to make a run for one of those four coveted College Football Playoff spots. Michigan State, as a program, had truly arrived.

As for Cook, his profile was higher than ever. After throwing for 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2014, the senior signalcaller from Hinckley, Ohio came into 2015 with huge expectations. He wasn’t just an All-Big Ten-caliber quarterback, but rather an All-American caliber quarterback. Some mentioned him as a Heisman candidate. And of course, his NFL stock was rising too. Cook was already a star, but he appeared on the cusp of becoming a superstar.

Then, just before the season was to kick off, there came out of East Lansing a strange—for, for Michigan State fans, potentially unsettling—story: Cook, a third-year starter, Heisman candidate and battle-tested quarterback who had played such a huge role in so many wins over the past few seasons, was not selected as a team captain.

According to the reports, when the Spartans cast their votes to pick their three leaders for the 2015 season, they went with Shilique Calhoun, Darien Harris and Jack Allen—but not Cook. Asked afterward how he felt about the snub, Cook was honest.

He wasn’t happy.

“Obviously it stinks not to be captain,” he said, according to ESPN.com.

He continued: “I for sure want to be captain, but it’s not going to limit me from leading. I think for the position that I’m in, being a quarterback here, that’s already assumed. I’ve been a leader here, I’ve been a leader since I’ve been starting here.”

It was a strange story that came out an inopportune time, and in the days after it appeared, more than a few pundits openly wondered whether Cook’s play would take a hit as a result.

Well, we’re now five weeks into the season, and while it certainly can’t be said that Cook hasn’t been playing well (he’s completing nearly 60 percent of his passes, has 10 touchdown passes against just one interception, and his quarterback rating has topped 150) there is a sense that—maybe, just maybe—Cook and his teammates aren’t quite firing on all cylinders.

Much of this can probably be attributed to the perhaps-too-lofty expectations that were heaped on both the player and the team (indeed, it’s possible that Cook never was a true Heisman candidate, and it’s possible, too, that the Spartans, having lost a few key pieces from last year’s great squad, were never a Top 4 team, either), and of course it should be pointed out that this bunch, despite their occasional struggles, enters Week 6 with a perfect 5-0 record. I mean, it’s not exactly time to panic.

But anyone who watched the Spartans slog their way through that ugly 24-21 win last week over a poor Purdue team knows that, at the moment, they probably aren’t the fourth-best team in the nation. They were sluggish on offense and at-times sloppy on defense, and Cook didn’t exactly light things up, either: he completed 13-of-19 attempts for just 139 yards against a defense that had previously been lit up by the likes of Marshall, Virginia Tech and Bowling Green.

It wasn’t the first time this season that he appeared off his game, either; after knocking off Oregon in Week 2 (a victory that, with time, looks a good deal less impressive), Cook openly admitted that he didn’t play well enough—that he missed key throws that could have sealed the game much earlier. Maybe the guy is a perfectionist. Maybe he’s just not playing up to his potential. Or maybe there’s a little bit of truth in both.

Yes, the Spartans are undefeated. But neither they nor their quarterback are playing their best ball.

It hasn’t cost them yet. But just as Ohio State needs better performances if it’s going to retain its national crown, Michigan State needs to up its game if it has any hopes of toppling the Buckeyes in the race for the Big Ten.

As for Cook, sure, it probably does “stink” not to be a captain. But it would have stunk a lot more to have lost to Purdue.

It’s time for the senior to put the captain snub behind him, and focus on what’s important: getting wins, and winning championships.

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