Four plays into Michigan State’s first offensive drive of the season, hope and horror converged upon each other.
Quarterback Connor Cook hit a streaking Tony Lippett down the far sideline for a 64-yard touchdown pass. But he didn’t see it. Cook hit the turf in pain, the victim of a reckless low hit by Jacksonville State safety Folo Johnson that bent his left knee backward. A grisly image that Big Ten Network replays showed again … and again … and again.
It didn’t look good. And for a few frightening moments, as a limping Cook was assisted off the field, the Spartans feared their promising dreams and huge expectations ended barely after the season started.
But Cook didn’t miss a snap. The medical team placed his knee in a brace.
Adrenaline took care of the rest.
Cook may have felt some pain in that left knee following the game, but that was nothing compared to the pain he and a suddenly potent Michigan State passing game inflicted upon the overmatched Gamecocks in the first half Friday night at Spartan Stadium.
A year ago, it took the Spartans 10 quarters to register their third touchdown pass of the season.
It took them a little more than 10 minutes against Jacksonville State to reach that plateau.
As scary as Cook’s injury initially looked, it’s even scarier imagining what the Spartans might become this season if their offense can reasonably replicate the explosiveness of a defense that could still dominate despite several new starting pieces.
The Spartans gained just under 400 total offensive yards in the first half of a comfortable season-opening romp over Jacksonville State, a Football Championship Division patsy. It was the first time that Michigan State gained more than 300 yards in the first half since the 2011 Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin.
Again, it was against Jacksonville State. But the Spartans did what they were supposed to do against such inferior competition. They didn’t turn any heads on the new 13-member College Football Playoff selection committee with such a thorough annihilation.
They’ll get their first real test next week at Oregon in a game that will carry significant playoff contention ramifications.
The biggest change for the Spartans are the heightened expectations. They could very well become this state’s team of autumn, the lone light piercing through a relatively bleak sports landscape.
The Tigers certainly aren’t dead in their chase of a fourth straight American League Central title, but they’re definitely not the playoff slam dunk they appeared at the All-Star break. Michigan should improve upon last season’s 7-6 embarrassment, but few consider them a serious threat to end its now-decade long Big Ten championship drought.
Well … they’re the Lions.
Need I say more?
It has become Michigan State’s stage.
“I think we’re constantly trying to evaluate where we are in all aspects of our football program,” Dantonio said earlier in the week. “And not just on the field. But that’s the main part. I still say that we’ve got a beautiful building here, but if we don’t have the right mental attitude coming into that locker room, (the infrastructural improvements) don’t mean anything because the bottom line is about wins.”
The trailer park décor at the north end of Spartan Stadium’s gone, replaced with a new state-of-the-art locker room and media center facility indicative of a football program trending upward.
The timing of the improvements couldn’t have been more perfect.
Michigan State isn’t elite — are there really any elite programs in the Midwest anymore? But perhaps more people are paying attention to Michigan State football than ever before. The Spartans have positioned themselves as a potential playoff threat. And for all the talent and execution that’s necessary for such a season, it also requires a fair amount of luck, as well.
That a cheap hit didn’t knock out Cook indefinitely could become the biggest lucky break the Spartans get all season.
- Drew Sharp, Detroit Free Press Columnist