Spartans are going to need Connor Cook back to win a national title

Here's how Michigan State beat Ohio State without star QB Connor Cook -- and why the Spartans need him back healthy to make the playoff.

| 11 months ago
(AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

(AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Spartans are going to need Connor Cook back to win a national title

If Michigan State was going to beat Ohio State on the road, it was likely going to be because of exceptional play from star QB Connor Cook (+24.0 overall grade). To do so without him being able to play, due to injury, is one of the most remarkable results of the season, and puts the Spartans right back in contention for a playoff berth.

In Cook’s absence against the Buckeyes, Michigan State leaned heavily on the ground game, with running backs Gerald Holmes (+6.8) and LJ Scott (+2.6) combining for 123 yards and one touchdown on 27 carries behind an offensive line that frequently won at the line of scrimmage. The numbers aren’t eye popping, but in the context of this game they were good enough, as the Spartans’ defense held the Buckeyes in check on the other side of the ball.

Ohio State could manage just 132 yards of offense and 14 points, with both touchdowns coming from Michigan State turnovers. Linebackers Jon Reschke and Darien Harris combined for nine defensive stops, and their overall grades for the season are now an impressive +11.7 and +9.8, respectively.

Michigan State employed a two-quarterback system against Ohio State, in which Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry combined for 91 yards and one touchdown through the air and 50 yards on the ground. O’Connor earned a +0.2 grade, and Terry earned a -2.5 grade. In most games that’s not going to be good enough to win, and the Spartans face a tough Penn State defense in East Lansing next week, with a game against Iowa for the Big Ten championship on the line for the following week. It’s tough to imagine the Spartans overcoming both the Nittany Lions and the Hawkeyes with a game plan as limited as the one they employed versus the Buckeyes.

If the Spartans do win out, their case for a playoff berth would be a convincing one. Adding a win over undefeated Iowa to road victories against Ohio State and Michigan would significantly bolster their résumé. There was an element of luck involved in the win over Michigan that may devalue it, but that good fortune was canceled out by the blown call that handed Nebraska its victory over the Spartans. The Spartans’ Week 2 win over Oregon is also looking good, with the Ducks on a roll, and Michigan State’s other out-of-conference opponents — Air Force, Western Michigan and Central Michigan — are all bowl eligible.

Michigan State proved itself worthy of a playoff spot with its win over Ohio State, but the Spartans can’t win it all without Cook back healthy.

| Analyst

Kevin has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2014, with a particular focus on college football.

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