EAST LANSING, Mich. (Detroit Free Press)- As preseason camp wrapped, there were people in and around the Michigan State football building who would have picked Connor Cook fourth on a list of most likely to end up with the starting quarterback.
Senior incumbent Andrew Maxwell had been steady, if not special. Redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor clearly had gained ground on Cook, showing more accuracy at times. And true freshman Damion Terry had opened eyes with a huge scrimmage, offsetting some of the usual freshman struggles leading up to that point.
Cook? The book said big and strong, powerfularm, clearly unafraid after leading MSU to the game-winning field goal against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl - but inconsistent as a passer and prone to head-scratching mistakes.
The depth chart says this after MSU's cathartic 55-17 romp over Youngstown State: Cook is MSU's starting quarterback, and there's no "or" after his name.
"Connor Cook's the No. 1 quarterback," MSU coach Mark Dantonio said after the game, and asked whether the competition is ongoing, he said: "No, (he's the) No. 1 guy."
The third-year sophomore got his second straight start and made this one count against the overmatched Penguins of the FCS on Saturday at Spartan Stadium, completing 15 of 22 passes for 202 yards and four touchdowns.
He had become the first MSU quarterback to throw for four scores in a game since 2007 (Brian Hoyer vs. Penn State) by halftime. Also by halftime, the Spartans' four offensive touchdowns were double their combined output in the first two games of the season.
"I feel I've gotten better each week," said Cook, who was told by coaches that this was "his game" and that he was going to be allowed to play through mistakes - after constant switching at the position in the first two games.
That was "reassuring" and "let me believe in myself," Cook said.
Terry was the big story before the game. MSU coach Mark Dantonio said on his pre-game radio show that he was "not ready" - after Dantonio said Tuesday that Terry would be given No. 2 reps in practice and a chance to prove he should play.
Many in the announced crowd of 71,626 chanted "We want Terry!" early in the game, as they had done during a 26-13 win over Western Michigan and 21-6 win over South Florida. But they were cheering Cook and touchdowns soon enough.
Three minutes into the game, Jeremy Langford took it in from 3. Andre Sims Jr. grabbed a short pass from Cook and scored from 13. Fullback Trevon Pendleton caught a 12-yard score, all alone on a tricky fake end-around.
Macgarrett Kings Jr. scored on the throw of the day, a 24-yard strike to end zone in the face of the Youngstown pass rush. And Bennie Fowler made it 35-10 with 1:50 left in the first half on a short pass, juke, broken tackle and 17-yard sprint.
MSU had 547 total yards after gaining 562 in the first two games. The Spartans were last in the FBS with 3.4 yards per pass after two games, and gained 8.4 per pass Saturday.
Dantonio said his offense just needed a spark to get going. The hapless defense of Youngstown State (2-1) provided the lighter and ideal conditions for a fire - but after the Spartans' offensive misery in the first two weeks, this was progress in terms of throwing, catching and gaining some confidence.
"It's a different feel," MSU safety RJ Williamson said of this win vs. the first two. "We knew it was coming."
MSU will see whether it can do any of that against a quality opponent in its next game, at Notre Dame.
O'Connor relieved Cook early in the third quarter and promptly led a 59-yard touchdown drive, capped by a Langford scoring run - which pushed him past defensive end Shilique Calhoun for the team lead in touchdowns with four.
O'Connor finished 7-for-10 for 68 yards. Kings led MSU with 61 yards receiving on four grabs, while Aaron Burbridge had 44 yards on three.
Nick Hill was the third back in but led the way again with 83 yards on nine carries, including a 35-yard touchdown. Langford ran for 68 yards on 15 carries.
MSU's defense gave up two touchdowns, including a 33-yard drive in the first half after Andre Sims Jr. lost a fumble on a punt return for the second straight week. Hill replaced Sims on punt returns for the rest of the game.