Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week, QB Curve will keep you up to speed on the game’s most important position by putting a different college signal-caller in the spotlight and putting the rest of the field in perspective.
QB of the Week: Michigan State’s Connor Cook
Typecasting: The Steady Hand. Like their more high-profile Southern cousins at Alabama, Michigan State quarterbacks under coach Mark Dantonio tend to come off the assembly line in one model: “efficient,” a useful term for a succession of guys who are slightly bigger than average, a lot slower than average, and charged primarily with not screwing things up for the defense. At their best, Spartan quarterbacks are boring. During Dantonio’s tenure, only one MSU passer has exceeded 3,000 yards in a season, and I defy anyone who’s not a Spartans fan to name him without clicking on this footnote.1 They make for ideal roster filler in the NFL. If your favorite pro team is currently waffling between a talented up-and-comer and a nondescript veteran placeholder as its starter, odds are good the placeholder played in East Lansing.
Kirk Cousins, in 2011.
Connor Cook is the apotheosis of the type. At 6-foot-4, 218 pounds, he’s big enough to keep pro scouts’ attention, but not so big that he draws automatic comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger. At least one scouting report has described Cook as “a bit duck-footed,” a roundabout way of saying he’s rushed for 81 yards in his career on 84 carries. And he wears the “efficient” label quite literally: Heading into this weekend’s Big Ten opener against Nebraska, Cook boasts the best pass efficiency rating in the Big Ten.
Of course, those numbers have been inflated by abbreviated appearances against Jacksonville State, Eastern Michigan, and Wyoming, in addition to a full day’s work in a 46-27 loss at Oregon. Still, it doesn’t take any deep statistical analysis to recognize what a godsend Cook has been for an attack that, at this time last year, lacked any discernible identity. Early in the 2013 season, the Michigan State offense was a laughingstock, having accounted for fewer touchdowns against FBS opponents in the month of September (3) than the far more capable MSU defense (4).
By November, though, Cook had permanently relegated 2012 starter Andrew Maxwell to the bench, and Michigan State had begun its rapid climb into the national consciousness. The Spartans didn’t play their first game as a ranked team last year until November 2, when they debuted at no. 24 in the Associated Press poll. Two months later, a 10-game winning streak deposited them at no. 3 in the final AP poll, their highest finish since 1966. That ascent mirrored Cook’s as the most dependable passer in the conference, and any hopes MSU still harbors of landing a playoff bid following the loss to the Ducks must assume that trajectory is ongoing.
At His Best: You can study Cook for hours and not come across anything in the numbers or the film that makes you say “wow,” or “hmmm,” or much of anything else. He’s as by-the-book as they come. One thing that does stand out when reviewing his 2013 highlights is how good Michigan State’s maligned wide receivers were at the end of the year: The Spartans’ most effective play was the “back shoulder” fade, which put the burden on the wideout — usually Bennie Fowler — to adjust to an intentionally underthrown ball against man coverage. (This worked for an 87-yard touchdown against Northwestern and a 37-yard gain in the Rose Bowl that set up a touchdown, both fairly spectacular grabs by the since-departed Fowler.) When Cook makes a great play, it’s rarely a laser-guided strike into a tight window and never the result of a scramble to buy time. More likely, it’s due to a good decision based on the opposing defense.
That throw came against an all-out, six-man blitz by Nebraska on third-and-13, in which the Huskers left their entire secondary on an island for the sake of generating pressure; MSU’s offensive line picked up the blitz, and Keith Mumphery was so open against man coverage that Cook didn’t even have to fully step into the throw to get it to his receiver on time. Fast-forward to the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl, when MSU faced a similar down-and-distance scenario at the same point in the game. Unlike Nebraska, Stanford dropped seven men into a zone coverage on third-and-8, but the result was the same:
It doesn’t look like much, but Cook’s initial look to his right to influence the safety in the middle of the field,2 before throwing back to his left, is the kind of subtlety that indicates a very high understanding of and comfort level with the offense.
The safety in this case is a very good one, former All-American and current NFLer Ed Reynolds.
Michigan State is still very much a run-first offense as long as the score allows, but given the chance, Cook is highly capable of beating good defenses with his arm. Last year, he saved his first real breakthrough for the Big Ten championship game, when he attempted 40 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns en route to a 34-24 upset over Ohio State. In the Rose Bowl, Cook one-upped himself by passing for a then career-high 332 yards in a 24-20 win over Stanford, turning in a better efficiency rating in the process (151.4) than the Cardinal had allowed any opposing passer in the previous two years. In the Spartans’ only meaningful game so far in 2014, at Oregon, Cook set career highs for attempts (47) and yards (343) in the loss. Given the nature of the offense, the maximum threshold when the game is unfolding according to plan is about 30 attempts or less, but that’s a limitation of the offense, not the quarterback.
At His Worst: Athletically, Cook isn’t a threat with his legs and doesn’t have a track record of uncorking spot-on deep balls. His decision-making under pressure isn’t always stellar, either. In the first half against Stanford, he gifted the Cardinal a touchdown on one of the ugliest pick-sixes you’ll ever see:
Against Oregon, meanwhile, Cook’s overall production was marred by two interceptions — the first of which was an extremely ill-advised throw into a pack of Oregon defenders in the middle of the field — and he admitted that he rushed some of his reads. After a solid, 24-point first half in Eugene, the second half was a disaster, yielding only a field goal. His margin for error on mental lapses is very narrow: Without the arm or the improv skills to mitigate those kinds of mistakes or potentially turn them into positives, any play that he can’t diagnose quickly is likely dead in the water.
To Saturday and Beyond: The Big Ten is wide open, and quarterback is a major reason Michigan State is favored to repeat as B1G champ: With Ohio State’s Braxton Miller out for the season, Cook is widely regarded as the best quarterback in the conference. At the very least, he’s the most predictable. Nebraska is no longer a division game (under the new alignment, the Spartans are in the East Division, the Cornhuskers in the West), but the Huskers are 5-0 and show up in the most recent AP poll at no. 19. The winner on Saturday will be the de facto front-runner to win the conference; the loser will be eliminated from any plausible playoff scenarios before midseason.
On an individual level, every chance to play on national television is an opportunity for Cook to put the “game manager” stereotype to bed and prove himself (again) as a prospect for the next level. By the end of last year, he was the engine of the offense in upsets over Ohio State and Stanford; he was also the engine against Oregon when the offense was working. Going into the Nebraska game last year, the big question for the Spartans was still, “Can this team win big with Connor Cook?” Now, it’s hard to imagine them winning big without him.
• Rarely does one come across an account of a 63-7 blowout in which the starting quarterback for the winning team is described as “a disaster from the start,” but that’s where LSU is with sophomore Anthony Jennings after Saturday’s win over New Mexico State. Jennings has struggled with accuracy all season, completing barely half of his passes on the year, and getting picked off twice in just five attempts against the Aggies. Combined with Jennings’s invisible performance in the Tigers’ loss to Mississippi State, coaches decided they’d seen enough to pull the plug in favor of true freshman Brandon Harris, who accounted for five touchdowns against NMSU after leading a pair of late, futile scoring drives against the Bulldogs the previous week.
Harris, who drew rave reviews in the spring as an early enrollee, will make his first career start Saturday at Auburn. If he’s as good as advertised, it may be the beginning of a new era for LSU. If not, it may be the beginning of a very long year in a division where uncertainty under center likely means certain death.
• From a quarterback perspective, there won’t be many more matchups this season as intriguing as Saturday’s Notre Dame–Stanford collision in South Bend, a perfectly timed litmus test for Irish starter Everett Golson on the heels of an eye-opening night against Syracuse. Golson’s consistency against the Orange was undeniable: At one point, he completed 25 consecutive passes en route to career highs for completions (32), yards (362), and touchdowns (4). It was arguably the first time in his career Notre Dame had taken the reins off Golson as a passer, and he delivered in terms of both efficiency and big-play prowess that he’s rarely shown in the past.
Amid the superlatives, though, Golson also threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Overcoming the odd lapse to bomb Syracuse into oblivion is one thing, but Stanford? After smothering Washington in Seattle, the Cardinal will enter the weekend ranked no. 1 nationally in passing yards allowed per game and per attempt, and fifth in pass efficiency defense.
Reggie Collier “Athlete” of the Week: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
The Reggie Collier “Athlete” All-Stars honor quarterbacks who best embody the “dual threat” ethos of their inspiration, the first player to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season.
Three weeks ago, Buckeye partisans were holding vigil for the offense in the wake of a 35-21 flop against Virginia Tech, a loss marred by seven sacks and three interceptions for Miller’s understudy. Last weekend, though, Barrett looked like the answer to their prayers. Against Cincinnati, the redshirt freshman passed for 330 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, adding another 79 yards on the ground in a 50-28 rout. As a team, Ohio State racked up 710 yards of offense, 45 first downs, and a 24-minute advantage in time of possession on 101 plays, a direct result of their decision to emphasize the hurry-up:
“I think J.T. plays the game well when we’re in that (up) tempo,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. … “Not to play amateur psychologist, but I think he is sometimes a bit of an over-thinker. So when you keep calling plays and let him run it, I think he does a good job because he doesn’t over-think too many things.”
Heading into Big Ten play, Barrett ranks among the top 20 nationally in total offense and the top 10 in pass efficiency, and is on pace to exceed Miller’s 2013 totals in both categories. That pace is almost certainly not sustainable, but we’ll worry about the revisions later. For now, enjoy the pendulum while it’s in your court, son.
QB Curve Power Hour!
Ranking the nation’s best quarterbacks after Week 5.
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon. Mariota got a much-needed bye week after enduring seven sacks against Washington State, yet still widened his lead as the nation’s most efficient passer. (LW: 1)
2. Jameis Winston, Florida State. Winston continued to flout expectations of untrammeled perfection by committing three turnovers at NC State. He also passed for 365 yards and four touchdowns in the course of erasing a double-digit deficit, and his team won by 15 points despite giving up 41. (LW: 3)
3. Bryce Petty, Baylor. Even against Iowa State, Petty remains one of very few QBs for whom 383 total yards and three touchdowns feels like shaking off the rust. (LW: 2)
4. Brett Hundley, UCLA. Hundley had steadily dropped on this list over the past few weeks, in part because of injury, but his performance against Arizona State (427 total yards, five TDs, 265.3 efficiency[!]) is exactly what the believers expected to see coming into the season. (LW: NR)
5. Kenny Hill, Texas A&M. Kenny Trill had his first off day against Arkansas, completing only 50 percent of his passes in regulation. But those 20 pre-OT completions still yielded 361 yards and three touchdowns, and Hill went on to throw the winning score in the extra frame. (LW: 4)
6. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State. Prescott enjoyed a week off to bask in the glow of his breakout night at LSU, but each new week in the SEC West brings another chance to watch your biggest goals fall by the wayside. This week: Hello, Texas A&M. (LW: 5)
7. Everett Golson, Notre Dame. The pass-heavy effort against Syracuse might change how defenses have to prepare for Golson, but for how long? (LW: 8)
8. Blake Sims, Alabama. Alabama–Ole Miss is going to be so much fun that it’s probably illegal in most Mississippi counties. (LW: 7)
9. Nick Marshall, Auburn. Marshall is still laying low, statistically, but we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him, beginning with this weekend’s visit from LSU. (LW: 9)
10. Connor Cook, Michigan State. Given how vulnerable Ohio State’s secondary has looked in nonconference play, Cook should be able to throw consistently against everyone left on the Spartans’ schedule. But only, you know, if MSU really, really needs him to. (LW: NR)
Waiting: Shane Carden (East Carolina), Taysom Hill (BYU), Kevin Hogan (Stanford), Cody Kessler (USC), Gunner Kiel (Cincinnati)