Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook is having a fine junior season, but he's had plenty of help from his friends.
Cook won the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl last year, then entered this season flanked by two fifth-year seniors who are among the conference's best players at their positions: running back Jeremy Langford and wide receiver Tony Lippett. Cook has developed into one of the better quarterbacks in the nation, and Lippett is one of college football's elite receivers. Langford is a quality running back, even if conference peers Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah and Tevin Coleman have overshadowed him some in 2014. Cook, Langford and Lippett all have the benefit of an elite offensive line that has allowed the fourth-lowest sack total (6) in the country through nine games.
On paper, Michigan State (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) boasts an offense with no holes – with stars throwing, running and catching the ball alongside a barely penetrable offensive line. The results have come, too, as the Spartans average 45 points per game, second in the league only to Ohio State. To have any chance against them on Saturday night, Maryland (6-3, 3-2) will probably need to play its finest defensive game of the year.
"We've got our work cut out for us," Terrapins defensive coordinator Brian Stewart said. "We're excited for the atmosphere, what it's going to be like playing at night, being on national TV, but we've got our work cut out for us."
The Spartans' success starts with their quarterback. Cook delivers the ball with accuracy and zip, and his 9.2 yards per attempt and 158.3 passer rating are career highs. He could miss out on all-conference honors to Ohio State's J.T. Barrett, but if he does, it won't be through any fault of his own. Maryland inside linebacker Cole Farrand pointed to Cook's smarts under center as his most impressive asset.
"He's able to pick apart the defense he's playing against. You can see him calling out and making reads and making checks and audibles on the offensive line," Farrand said. "He knows what's going on. He's a good coordinator out there."
Cook's favorite target by a comfortable margin is Lippett. He leads the conference with 106 yards receiving per game, and his 46 catches are 26 more than anyone else on his team. He has hauled in nine of Cook's 19 touchdown passes and accounted for about 43 percent of Cook's total yardage. Stewart said aside from West Virginia's Kevin White, the 6-foot-3 Lippett could be the best wideout Maryland faces this year.
"He's pretty good as far as, if you jam him, coming off the jam. He's physical," Stewart said. "He's fast, and he can use his length to attack the ball in the air."
When Michigan State opts to run, the Spartans' primary option is Langford, whose 5.5-yard carrying average is actually less than that of backups Nick Hill and Delton Williams. Langford is dangerous, though; he managed 137 yards on 18 carries against an all-world Ohio State defensive front last week.
"He's able to break plays, and many defenses think that he's down at the line of scrimmage, but then he'll pop out at the end of the pile," nose tackle Darius Kilgo said.
Farrand also emphasized staying with the play as a key to containing Langford: "One person trying to bring him down and just with an arm tackle, or not really trying to wrap him up and drive him to the ground, it doesn't work on that guy."
The catalyst for Langford's success – and Cook's uprightness – is the Michigan State offensive line. The unit has kept its signal-caller on his feet better than almost any other and aided a run game that ranks fifth in the Big Ten. Kilgo said he finds it to be an aggressive line and that Cook's quick ball release also lessens sack opportunities.
"Being able to have a quarterback back there that's able to get rid of the ball, that just helps," Kilgo said.
Farrand said Maryland had a plan in place to get after Cook, even where so few have.
"The guys we have, even though we're not the biggest guys out there, we are [some] of the quickest, and I think it shows."
Getting pressure is crucial, because for Michigan State, everything starts with Cook. He makes precious few errors, having thrown 12 interceptions in 26 career appearances. And he has an admirable stable of weapons around him, including Lippett, Langford, and five-touchdown tight end Josiah Price.
With Cook under center over the last two years, the Spartans' record is 20-3.
"He knows what he wants to do," Farrand said. "He doesn't make mistakes that I think we can capitalize on."