EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Connor Cook tried his best last season to ignore the talk of how Michigan State's defense was carrying the team.
"I can't control what other people are saying about our offense," Cook said. "It really doesn't get to me. The only thing that I can focus on is just being the best quarterback I can possibly be."
Cook's emergence toward the end of last season helped the Spartans to a Rose Bowl victory, and an exceptional opener this year against Jacksonville State has quieted many of the concerns about Michigan State's offense. Now the junior faces a stern test this weekend, when Cook leads seventh-ranked Michigan State into one of the most anticipated nonconference games of the year at No. 3 Oregon.
The high-scoring Ducks (1-0) are led by quarterback Marcus Mariota, a Heisman Trophy candidate. But make no mistake: These Spartans (1-0) are more than just a bruising defense.
"I think Connor Cook picked up where he left off last year," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "I think Cook has got a great release, very strong arm. He's big, he's mobile, and there's a lot of things that he can do that are untapped yet, and I really feel like some of that involved his running ability."
Cook had barely played in 2012 when Dantonio put the redshirt freshman in during the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Cook helped the Spartans to a 17-16 victory over Texas Christian, but that didn't mean he was taking over at quarterback just yet.
There was no clear No. 1 quarterback at the beginning of last season — and the competition for the starting job began in such uninspiring fashion that fans were chanting for freshman Damion Terry, who ended up redshirting. By the time Big Ten play started, Cook was the starter, but he was averaging only 5.1 yards per pass attempt.
The term "game manager" — so often applied to marginal passers who rarely take risks — seemed to represent the best the Spartans could hope for in 2013, but as Michigan State quietly became a serious Rose Bowl contender, Cook began putting up better numbers. He went 15 of 16 with three touchdowns at Illinois, and he threw for 293 yards in a win at Northwestern.