Connor Cook (18) and running back R.J. Shelton celebrate Cook’s 25-yard TD pass to Tony Lippett that gave the Spartans a 24-17 lead in the fourth quarter. | Getty images
Updated: January 1, 2014 11:08PM
PASADENA, Calif. — It seemed so obvious at the time. Michigan State was done. Connor Cook was toast. He had to be.
The sophomore quarterback had just made a throw so shockingly boneheaded, Stanford’s Kevin Anderson must’ve shaken his head and chuckled throughout his 40-yard touchdown return. It was late in the second quarter of an evenly fought game, but suddenly the favored Cardinal led by 10.
Stanford, the defending Rose Bowl champ, wasn’t about to give that lead away — surely not to the BCS newbies from East Lansing.
“Connor Cook can make up for that . . . next year,” shrieked some idiot into his Twitter microphone. “There’s no coming back from that today. No way, no how.”
Did I mention that was my tweet? It was. Sadly. Stupidly.
There was more than a half to go in the 100th Rose Bowl, and Cook needed less than two minutes to drive the Spartans 75 yards for the touchdown that cut the deficit to three heading into the intermission. Me? I was shocked. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio? He was not.
Dantonio had asked Cook simply, “Are you all right?” Cook had responded with an “I’m good” and a fist bump. Apparently, this kid — mistake-prone but magnificent during a 24-20 victory — has no conscience.
“He doesn’t get rattled,” Dantonio said.
That’s what was so special about the first MSU team to turn the stands green in Pasadena in 26 years. All the missteps, all the cracks, only made it stronger.
The Spartans (13-1) allowed Stanford to march 77 yards for a touchdown on the first possession of the game. By the end of the first quarter, the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense was being shredded to the tune of 146 total yards. But it took the Cardinal (11-3) nearly three more full quarters to double that.
“Like we always have,” Dantonio said, “we recollected ourselves.”
Late in the third quarter, MSU was driving for its first lead when running back Jeremy Langford fumbled at the Stanford 8-yard line. Momentum swung fiercely to the Cardinal, which seemed ready to break a 17-17 tie and end the nonsense. No dice. The Spartans forced a three-and-out, got the ball back and scored.
“End of the third, beginning of the fourth, we earned their respect,” Langford said. “We’ll come and hit you. That’s what we did.”
In the final minutes, with Stanford facing a fourth-and-one on a now-or-never drive, the Spartans and their fans had to be wishing senior inside linebacker Max Bullough, one of the best players on the team, hadn’t been suspended. But who flew up and over the line to stop fullback Ryan Hewitt for no gain? None other than Bullough’s backup, Kyler Elsworth.
“Next man up,” Elsworth said.
A season ago, Michigan State was 7-6 and Dantonio’s reputation was slipping. Now, it’s the top of the mountain. Now, it’s a reported contract extension that will make Dantonio one of the Big Ten’s highest-paid coaches, in the neighborhood of $4 million a year.
Texas is calling? No, thanks.
“It would be hard to leave these guys,” Dantonio said.
Along with his coaching staff and players, he has achieved — no, experienced is a better word — the ultimate in college football. A national title? No. Just a Rose Bowl, as if that’s not more than enough.
“There is no bigger prize, really,” he said. “How much farther can you go to reach that level emotionally?”
The Big Ten hasn’t won a national title since Ohio State did it in 2002. The Spartans are the first conference team other than Ohio State to win a Rose Bowl since Wisconsin did it in 1999.
Glory is harder and harder to come by for a league that isn’t close to what it once was. But the Spartans weren’t afraid to grab for that glory. That’s just who they are.