Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook is one of the more decorated players in program history.
The redshirt senior — who Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer called one of the best signal-callers in Big Ten history — holds multiple school records, including most wins in a career (32), 300 yard passing games (10) and career touchdown passes (68).
But on Saturday, during the Spartans’ game against the third-ranked Buckeyes, all Cook held was a clipboard.
It didn’t matter.
With its two backup quarterbacks, Michigan State was still able to derail OSU’s unbeaten season with a 17-14 upset in a soaked and windy Ohio Stadium in front a record crowd of 108,975.
It was a result that many did not see coming, even if Cook had been underneath the center. But, instead, the Spartans went with a two-quarterback system of redshirt junior Tyler O’Connor and redshirt sophomore Damion Terry.
“We had a great game plan that we executed,” Terry said after the game. “And we definitely came in with confidence in the beginning.”
But that game plan came as a surprise for OSU, as all week, coaches and players insisted they were scheming for a game in which Cook would play, despite the Hinckley, Ohio, native ailing from a right-shoulder injury suffered against Maryland a game prior.
He didn’t take a snap.
With the conditions being less conducive for throwing the ball and more suitable for play-calling heavily predicated on the run, it was the perfect storm for O’Connor and Terry.
Both players are more of a threat with their legs than Cook would have been. And as evidenced by OSU’s games against Maryland and Indiana, running quarterbacks can cause the “Silver Bullets” to falter.
“In a game like that, with the weather like that, it might be a little bit better in some instances,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said of the backups’ ability to run with the football.
One such instance was on the Spartans’ second touchdown drive of the game, which knotted the score at 14-14 with 12:00 left in the fourth quarter. On a critical fourth-and-3, O’Connor took the snap on a speed option and went to his right. The Lima, Ohio, native made a deft cut up field, picking up 11 yards and a first down.
“We had to be high alert,” senior linebacker Joshua Perry said about the play. “But, at the end of the day, they made a play and we didn’t.”
Then, two snaps later, Terry came into the game and picked up five yards on a designed quarterback run. O’Connor checked back into the game on the ensuing play, carrying the ball for five yards to advance down to the OSU 7-yard line.
Two carries by redshirt sophomore running back Gerald Holmes later, and the contest was leveled at 14.
That drive’s domination on the ground was a microcosm of what happened throughout the whole day.
Michigan State kept the ball on the ground with its quarterbacks and tailbacks, running it a total of 51 times for more than 200 yards, while dominating the time of possession. At one point, Michigan State ran the football on 17 straight plays.
Seven different Spartans had at least two carries resulting in positive yardage.
“They were moving the ball, that’s all we were worried about,” Perry said. “It doesn’t matter who is doing it … you just got to be able to get a stop at some point.”
Perry said when the team got the news about Cook not starting right before kickoff, they knew they would have to make adjustments to their game plan.
But the adjustments the Buckeyes made just weren’t enough. When push came to shove, the Spartans and their backup quarterbacks imposed their will on the OSU defense. The reasons why that happened were plentiful, according to Perry.
“It’s a combination of things,” he said of the defense’s struggles to slow down Michigan State. “We mishit a few plays, they gave us a couple of looks that we weren’t used to. And then you got a guy in there who you think — the quarterback (runs) the ball, you’ve got be able to account for that. It was just a lot of things.”
As for Fickell, he was more straightforward in his analysis of the why OSU’s 23-game win streak came to an end on Saturday.
“The reality is they did a better job at running it than we did stopping it,” he said