SvoNotebook: Michigan State Edition

This week's pregame notebook is a doozy. Get ready for the Ohio State-Michigan State game with notes on Ohioan Connor Cook, how OSU's players feel about getting back on the big stage, the Buckeyes' offensive balance and more.

It would be inaccurate to say that Connor Cook hopes to put Hinckley, Ohio – pop. 6,753 – on the map this weekend.

The buzzards that return to the Medina County hamlet every year on the ides of March, turning "Buzzard Day" into one of the Buckeye State's more notable holidays, have already done that.

But Cook does want to represent the city – motto: "Small Town, Big Hearts" – well when he takes on his home-state school today in the Big Ten Championship Game.

This won't be a case of revenge, really, though for Cook. Unlike some of the 25-plus Ohioans on the Michigan State roster, Cook didn't grow up with dreams of wearing the scarlet and gray, going around shouting "O-H!" or "Go Bucks!" to anyone who would listen on football Saturdays.

"Not really, no," he said. "My dad (Chris) played football at Indiana, so we weren't really Ohio State fans because of that reason, but then we weren't Indiana fans either because Indiana really wasn't too good so there wasn't much to cheer about.

"We were pretty much Big Ten fans in general. We liked watching the Big Ten games – basketball, football, whatever it was – but I wouldn't really say I was a huge OSU fan growing up. If they won, cool. If not, so be it."

Cook didn't really get much of a chance to change that, either, when he was coming out of Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit High School. A two-star quarterback in the class of 2011, he never got an Ohio State offer, instead pledging to MSU in April 2010 just two months after receiving the scholarship offer from the Spartans.

Per the Scout database, MSU was the first offer Cook received, and clearly, the Spartans were on to something. After redshirting in 2011, Cook subbed in for struggling veteran Andrew Maxwell at times last year – most notably in the team's Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory – and he became the team's starting quarterback for the second game of this season.

He didn't become the team's trusted No. 1 guy until Big Ten play – Maxwell came on in relief in the Notre Dame loss, MSU's only one this year – but since then he has become a solid player for the Spartans. A second-team All-Big Ten choice by the league's coaches, Cook has completed 58.2 percent of his passes this year with 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions, least of any starting QB in the league.

"He's 10-1 right now as the starter," said head coach Mark Dantonio, who went on to second guess his decision to lift Cook in the Notre Dame game. "I think he has grown. I really felt like after the Iowa game we saw great growth, and then when he was able to come back in the next game and the next two or three games and put together back to back games with great play, I thought that it was a very big positive step for him.

"I also think he's a resilient young man. I mean, he can get knocked down and get back up, and that's as important as anything in a football game. He has that presence about him, that ability to take a hit, to take something bad happening out there and be able to respond, and I think that's huge, especially in a championship venue, because there's going to be some bad plays."

Cook said this week he's been a "super hard worker" since he arrived, and he's clearly earned the respect of his teammates since taking over as the signal caller under center. That even goes for MSU's staunch defense, a unit led by linebacker Max Bullough.

"It's unbelievable," Bullough said. "The changes that kid's made as a person and as a football player have been unrivaled by anyone I've ever seen. He's grown up. He's mature. He's athletic. He's become a leader on this football team. Connor is a guy that two years ago, I might have thought you're crazy if you told me he was going to be the quarterback and we're going to be 11-1 and sitting where we are.

"But at the beginning of the year, I think he made the decision that, ‘This is my time. I need to take this. I need to be mature about it,' and he has. Any quarterback that can come in their first year and run an 11-1 football team in the Big Ten, that says a lot about him as a football player and as a person."

Buckeyes Back On B1G Stage
For six straight seasons from 2005-10, Ohio State was in a BCS bowl each season, appearing in the nation title game in 2006 and '07.

That's the program the older Ohio State players expected to be in when they arrived at OSU, only to find the program in a different mode when Jim Tressel was let go following in May 2011 for NCAA violations.

Every Buckeye fan knows what happened next – a 6-7 season ended with a Gator Bowl trip in 2011, then last year's 12-0 campaign that ended abruptly with a win in The Game vs. Michigan.

So this trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game is OSU's first big trip for a neutral-site, postseason game since the Sugar Bowl game vs. Arkansas after the 2010 season.

For the more experienced players on the roster, it will be nice to be big on the big stage – especially as the eyes of the nation will be on the game that could send OSU to the national title contest.

"Personally, my freshman year was when we were having all those issues, so I've never been on this kind of stage," junior defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. "I think some of the older guys would understand that better, but it feels great to know that I've had a hand in bringing Ohio State back to that. Just being a part of a team like this that can actually bring Ohio State back to its former glory, that means a lot."

And if the Buckeyes actually win the game? It would be even better for someone like Bennett, who originally committed to play under Tressel.

"It would mean everything," he said. "To see what this team has done the last two years with the new coaching staff and how the seniors have come together and how the team has started to buy in – not buying in, have bought in – it would mean so much because I know my freshman year we had a hard year. We were able to bounce back last year, and to be able to play for a Big Ten championship this year is huge."

Balance This
One week ago, Ohio State ran the ball 46 times and threw it 15. This year, the Buckeyes have 547 rushing attempts and 321 passes – which doesn't exactly scream balance.

Of course, who needs balance when you have posted school-record totals of points and yards?

"I think it's a product of how well we're rushing," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "It's not a concern. … In the case of the game up in Ann Arbor, we were having success running the football, so it would have been probably against better judgment to stray away from that."

No one will argue with that, but being so run-heavy might put the Buckeyes in a bind against a defense like Michigan State's, which has teed off on teams when it knows what is coming this year.

But the concept of balance has many forms, according to the OSU coaching staff. It doesn't mean running the same amount of pass plays and runs, or having the same yardage gained through both parts of the offensive game.

"Greg Davis, one of my mentors from when I GA'ed at Texas, told me balance is not having the same amount of rushing yards or the same amount of passing yards or the same amount of rushing plays versus the same amount of passing plays," Herman said. "Balance is being able to win the game either way dependent on how the defense what the defense is trying to take away, and I think we are a balanced offense right now."

Head coach Urban Meyer agreed.

"What I consider balance is outside and inside run game and obviously short pass and vertical pass," the head coach said. "And this week we have to be very balanced."

Sparty No!
Let's be honest – there's a reason the blogosphere has the same reaction whenever Michigan State comes so close but falls just short of a big win, a championship or the like.

Sparty no!

Perhaps the ultimate example of that came the last time MSU was in the Big Ten title game. In the inaugural game, the Spartans put together a spirited comeback from an early Wisconsin lead, but they still trailed 42-39 late in the game when they forced the Badgers to punt.

Keshawn Martin returned the kick deep into Wisconsin territory, setting up a sure game-tying field goal attempt or perhaps a winning TD score, but there was a yellow flag on the field. Isaiah Lewis had hit punter Brad Nortman while going for the punt block, a penalty that gave Wisconsin a fresh set of downs to run out the clock with.

So close, yet so far.

"He was obviously really down," Bullough said. "First of all, you lose a big game like that, you're going to be down, especially when you think you're the reason – right after the game, he probably thought he was the reason we lost the game."

Another example, though, could be last year's Ohio State-Michigan State clash. The Spartans played with OSU the entire game but could not get the win in the end, losing the game when the Buckeyes ran out the clock after receiving a punt with four minutes left.

"We feel like last year was definitely a game that got away from us, slipped away," Cook said. "It was in our grasp at the end and feel like it was a game that we definitely should have won. We're obviously looking at last year's film, watching it. It's hard to watch for how well we played and stuff like that, and we feel like it's the same group of guys we're going up against and it's pretty much the same group of guys that we had last year. So it's going to be a similar rematch, and we feel like we played well enough to win."

Trick Or Treat?
Mark Dantonio is not afraid to try a fake or two.

For example, there's the famous "Little Giants" fake field-goal pass the Spartans used to beat Notre Dame in overtime in 2010 – the so-called "Call of the Year," as Brad Nessler bellowed, a play that propelled MSU to an 11-win season.

This year, the former OSU assistant has been even more aggressive when it comes to such play calls. The Spartans hit on a fake punt, as punter Mike Sadler ran for the first down, in the fourth quarter to help seal the win vs. Iowa, and a fake field-goal in the fourth quarter also was a key play in the Big Ten Legends Division-deciding win at Nebraska.

Dantonio also called for a wide receiver pass that was intercepted deep in Notre Dame territory in the team's lone loss to the Fighting Irish, so the trickery doesn't always work, but the MSU coach is known for his love of deception.

Of course, you don't have to tell Meyer that.

"We have," Meyer said when asked if his team has spent additional time preparing for fakes. "We've done a lot of research when they're called, what time they're called. They do a nice job with it. They do it in big games, too. That's something we certainly spend time on."

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