EAST LANSING - Connor Cook is now Michigan State's starting quarterback, and he doesn't have to worry about any potential replacements for the time being.
Coach Mark Dantonio confirmed that after the sophomore threw four touchdown passes in the first half of Saturday's 55-17 win over Youngstown State. It was the first time all year the Spartans looked smooth on offense, and Dantonio said there's no more competition for the top spot on the depth chart at quarterback.
"Connor Cook's the No. 1 quarterback, yeah," Dantonio said, when asked if he is ready to confirm that the job is now secure.
Cook had split time with Andrew Maxwell and Tyler O'Connor in Michigan State's first two games. Saturday marked Cook's second start. This time, Dantonio was prepared to go with Cook and give him a more extended chance to show what he could do.
He went 15 of 22 for 202 yards before being replaced by O'Connor early in the third quarter of what was by that point a rout.
"It was the plan to go with him and to sort of stick with him a little bit, even if he had a difficult time," Dantonio said. "I thought he responded."
Michigan State (3-0) needed one of its quarterbacks to show progress after the defense accounted for four of the team's six touchdowns in the first two games. Cook looked sharp, albeit against an opponent from the Football Championship Subdivision, and now the Spartans can prepare to play Notre Dame next weekend.
Youngstown State QB Kurt Hess was 11 of 27 for 121 yards and a touchdown for Youngstown State (2-1).
Before the Spartans' first offensive possession, some fans in the student section were already chanting for freshman quarterback Damion Terry, who hasn't played yet and can still redshirt.
Earlier in the week, Dantonio said Terry would be No. 2 at QB for the Youngstown State game. But Dantonio and co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said Terry didn't demonstrate enough understanding during the week.
"I think right now it's better that we redshirt him, just based on his practices this week," Dantonio said of Terry. "You never say never, but that's based on how I feel right now."
Dantonio said they would now like to redshirt Terry this season, if things continue to fall in place on offense, as they did on Saturday.
Cook heard the chants for the true freshman.
"I heard that stuff, and it didn't really faze me," Cook said. "I just knew that I was going to go out there and do whatever I possibly could to help this team win."
Those Terry chants were silenced for the rest of the day after MSU scored a TD on its first possession.
Cook's first drive didn't require much - the Spartans took over at the Youngstown State 24-yard line after a punt and a penalty on the Penguins. Jeremy Langford's 3-yard touchdown run opened the scoring.
After a Youngstown State field goal, Cook threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Andre Sims. Later in the first quarter, Cook faked handoffs to two different teammates on one play before finding fullback Trevon Pendleton for a 12-yard touchdown.
"We made the difficult catch, we threw the ball with confidence, we had explosive plays," Dantonio said. "I don't care who you're playing against, the fact that we had explosive plays gives you an indication that we grew up a little bit."
Sophomore Shilique Calhoun, the Michigan State defensive end who already has three touchdowns this year, didn't score any Saturday, but he did have a sack and a fumble recovery in the first half. The latter was immediately followed by Cook's 24-yard TD pass to surging sophomore WR Macgarrett Kings that made it 28-10.
Cook added a 17-yard scoring pass to Bennie Fowler with 1:50 remaining in the second quarter. By halftime, the Spartans had this game pretty much wrapped up - and Cook had a similar hold on the No. 1 quarterback spot.
It now looks like Maxwell - last year's starter - is competing with O'Connor to be the top backup.
It's hard to say how much of a step forward this was for Michigan State, which finished with 547 yards of offense. Youngstown State is one of the better teams in the FCS, and the Penguins beat Pittsburgh last season. But the real test for the Spartans comes next weekend at Notre Dame.
"Obviously Michigan State came to play today and we are disappointed in the way we played," Penguins coach Eric Wolford said. "Youngstown State, we don't expect to come out and slop around on the field like that."
Junior running back Nick Hill rushed for 83 yards on nine carries for Michigan State, including a 35-yard touchdown in the third quarter and a beautifully-executed delayed draw. Langford added a 2-yard scoring run that made it 49-10.
Martin Ruiz ran for a 5-yard touchdown in the second quarter for Youngstown State, and he caught a 34-yard TD pass from Hess in the third.
Michigan State equaled its highest-scoring game since a 61-14 victory over Illinois in 2005. The Spartans have now scored 55 points three times since then.
Opening comments: "I thought today we obviously got great play from our offense. The most impressive thing to me was that we made those 50-50 catches - those catches that are difficult to make. We made them in crowds with people hanging on you. I thought (Connor) Cook played well. He ran the ball effectively and controlled things. I thought he threw the ball really well. We were solid on third downs. Shilique (Calhoun) played well again. Anytime you don't have an offense get over 200 yards you know you're playing well defensively. So, big team win, go to 3-0 which is as good as we can be right now and thankful for that.
On Connor Cook:I thought Connor played well. It was the plan to go with him and to sort of stick with him even if he had a difficult time. I thought he responded.
Is he your No. 1 QB? Connor Cook is the number one quarterback, yes.
There's no more competition? No. (He's the) No. 1 guy.
We made that decision (for Cook to start) later in the week and said you're going to go. He was excited about that opportunity. When you get your number called, you're going to be excited.
He's always been a good practice player. I think all of our guys work hard out there. He had a very good Thursday practice. I really thought he threw the ball well on Thursday. We upped tempo on things on how he was handling the huddle and that was a positive.
I think we had great protection from our offensive line. He's always been pretty resilient in there and I think he showed where he's at. I think he had 191 at halftime and I think he only played one more series after that, so I thought he played well. I thought he ran the ball well, made good checks at the line of scrimmage.
"He has a great arm. Just like everything, sometimes the receiver can't get loose or can't get separation or the window closes and he's not going to complete all of them. But he has great arm strength. He's a big, strong, physical guy, 6-foot-4, 228 pounds, with a rocket arm. He has good feet. The thing he is lacking probably is long-term game experience which he got today.
On the second-string quarterback situation: I think that has to play out. We did not want Andrew (Maxwell) to play on a lopsided win like that. Tyler O'Connor needed more of an opportunity to show what he had. I thought he played pretty well, threw the ball pretty well and did some good things. We'll evaluate his performance off the game film. He got a lot of plays in there, which was a positive. I think I've said we try to slow the game down and give people opportunities. I think we've done that. We let it roll from there.
On the importance of the quarterback decision today: I don't think it was vital. I don't think it was crucial. I think you want to make decisions as soon as you can, but sometimes I don't make that the decision, the players make that decision. They have to play well under some pressure situations and continue to play well. When it's close and you're going back and forth, you sort of have to let things roll as a coach.
On the team's performance overall: I thought we had a sense of urgency. I thought we needed to play well offensively because we had not to level that I think we're capable of. Defensively, we played very well. We need to continue to do that and there are things on special teams that we need to get squared away. If you look at us offensively, almost 550 yards. I think we had one turnover. We had a turnover on a punt return. Offensively, I think 10 out of 15 on third down and one-for-one on fourth, so that's a positive. We ran the ball pretty effectively. Even though it was by committee, we ran the ball. I thought you saw some guys make difficult catches. Macgarrett Kings, Jr. was obviously very exciting. (Aaron) Burbridge made a big catch and run. You saw what (R.J.) Shelton could do on the edge a little bit. Bennie Fowler made a big play on a reception and I thought Tony Lippett played well and had some big catches. We got our tight ends involved a little bit in getting catches. We spread it around, which was a positive. Defensively, we did what we had to do. It was unfortunate they got a turnover down close. Obviously a kick return gave them a ball down close, within 50 yards, as well. Still, we don't want to give up touchdowns, but they had the one and something else. I don't remember.
On Macgarrett Kings, Jr. I continue to say that Macgarrett Kings, Jr. had a great fall camp. He catches everything. His confidence is very high right now and that's what you do. You put a premium on confidence when you're a skill player, whether that's the quarterback, tailback, or wide out. When your confidence is high, you can catch it all. We put him back there for punts today and he responded with a 15-yard return, so that's something we have been wanting to do as well. He's a playmaker. We've got to get him the ball and touches to see how he responds.
On the tailback situation: I thought Nick Hill played very well. He gave us a spark with that big run before half. He's electrifying at times. (Jeremy) Langford can do a lot of the same things, but Riley (Bullough) is a little different. He's continued to grow in really only his third game as a tailback. He brings a different element to the game. Those are guys who complement each other in some sort of way. They had 25 or 30 carries between the three of them. I thought they played well, I thought we blocked well and play-calling was good."