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.
Then in the Big Ten title game against Ohio State, he passed for a career-high 304 yards, only to surpass that with a 332-yard effort against Stanford in the Rose Bowl. In this season's opener against Jacksonville State, he completed his first nine passes en route to a dazzling stat line: 12 of 13 for 285 yards and three TDs.
The most anxious moment of that game came early, when Cook threw a long touchdown pass but was hit late by a diving defender. He was able to keep playing, but on Tuesday it was clear the hit still bothered him.
"I've watched a lot of football growing up — watching NFL, watching college — and I've never seen a dirtier hit than that," Cook said. "I think the ball was clearly out of my hands for a solid one second, whatever. The guy closed in on me for another five yards, intentionally dove at my knee — so yeah, it was a very dirty hit. I wasn't too happy about it, but I'm just fortunate that it wasn't worse than what it was."
With that minor scare behind him, Cook can focus on Oregon. The game is being billed as a showdown between the Ducks' fast-paced offense and Michigan State's aggressive, well-schooled defense. That's a fair story line, but this is a chance for Cook and the Spartans to show they can put up a few points themselves.
"What bigger stage could you want?" Cook said. "Obviously, the pressure's on us as an offense. Our defense is going to do their thing, so we've got to control the football. We've got to try and win the time of possession, run the ball well, pass the ball well."