- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2016

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) - Connor Cook picked up one of several batted passes and disgustedly tossed the football toward the referee.

Michigan State’s senior quarterback was caught on camera hollering some choice words about Alabama defensive linemen being “everywhere” on so many plays.

Cook’s return to the Cotton Bowl for a 38-0 loss to No. 2 Alabama in a playoff semifinal on New Year’s Eve left him with a much more empty feeling than 364 days earlier when he led a huge fourth-quarter rally in a New Year’s Day win over Baylor.

And he tried not to dwell on the stakes being so much higher for such a blowout loss in his final game Thursday night.

“Obviously, last year was everyone was so happy, everyone was on cloud nine,” Cook said. “The ride has been so fun. And the last thing I want to do is look at the down side and say our last game as Spartans, we lost. We want to be positive people and look at the bright side.”

Cook was off target on some throws, had several others knocked down and threw an interception to ruin a scoring chance with the third-ranked Spartans (12-2) trailing 10-0 in the final seconds of the first half.

The performance was in stark contrast to the 42-41 win over the Bears, when Cook had two touchdown passes to help wipe out a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

When he left the home of the Dallas Cowboys after leading a winning drive in the final minute, Cook had every intention of getting the Spartans in the playoff a year later.

Cook, the No. 2 active quarterback in FBS victories with 34, helped make it happen. But he wilted under the pressure of Alabama’s 11-deep defensive line, getting sacked four times and finishing 19 of 39 for 210 yards with two interceptions in just his fifth career loss.

“It felt like they were playing some good defense out there,” Cook said. “The pass rush was there. Everything we saw on film was out there. It’s on us to go out there and get open. It’s on me to go out there and make a pass that’s pinpoint accurate.”

Michigan State’s winningest quarterback missed badly several times while starting 4 of 11. When Cook finally found a rhythm and had the Spartans at the Alabama 12 late in the first half, he underthrew Aaron Burnbridge for an easy interception by Cyrus Jones near the goal line.

The Spartans looked the part of a 10-point underdog despite coming in with at least 11 wins in five of the past six seasons, and consecutive victories in major bowls starting with the Rose Bowl two seasons ago.

“This is the first time in a while we’ve had this happen to us,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “So you’ve got to pick up the pieces and move forward.”

The Crimson Tide (13-1) kept the pressure on Cook by limiting the Spartans to 29 yards rushing on 26 attempts, which included 29 yards lost in sacks of Cook. The first sack, by Jonathan Allen, ended a promising drive during a scoreless first quarter.

“It’s a blessing to have those guys up front, you know?” Jones said. “We work hand in hand. They count on us to do their job covering and we count on them to get pressure on the quarterback. You could sense their frustration a little bit.”

Michigan State’s leading rusher was Damion Terry with 14 yards on just one meaningless fourth-quarter carry.

The Spartans held Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry to 75 yards rushing, but paid for it in the passing game. Jake Coker was 25 of 30 for 286 yards with two touchdowns.

The fourth sack of Cook was a 10-yarder on an intentional grounding penalty when he tried to chuck the ball as he was driven into the turf by Tim Williams. Michigan State had to punt from its 3, and Jones returned it 57 yards for a 24-0 lead late in the third quarter.

“I think our defensive front probably affected the quarterback a little bit,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “So that made a difference in the game in his ability to operate.”

But it didn’t change Dantonio’s view of his three-year starter.

“Connor Cook is a guy that can flip a game around,” the coach said. “I’ve seen him do amazing things as a quarterback. He’s played very, very well in huge games. He’s our quarterback that we’ve hung our hat on here for three years.”

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AP College Football website: https://collegefootball.ap.org

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