By NOAH TRISTER
AP Sports Writer
DETROIT (AP) -- Connor Cook first showed his potential on a big stage for Michigan State when he led the Spartans on their winning drive in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl last year.
Now coach Mark Dantonio hopes Cook is ready for another big challenge -- a trip to Notre Dame this week.
"This will be a great experience for him because he's going to have an environment to play in that's going to simulate really what a lot of Big Ten environments are going to be from this point on," Dantonio said. "That's going to be a period of growth for him -- an exciting time."
Cook emerged from the competition to become Michigan State's No. 1 quarterback after last weekend's sharp performance against Youngstown State. That puts him on the spot for the Spartans' first big test of the year Saturday against the 22nd-ranked Fighting Irish.
"I feel like I've gotten better each week," Cook said. "The confidence is growing in practice, it's growing in the games."
Cook redshirted in 2011 and played sparingly behind Andrew Maxwell last season. It wasn't until the bowl against Texas Christian that Cook made his first significant contribution. He split time with Maxwell in that game, and with the Spartans trailing by two toward the end, Dantonio went with Cook, who guided Michigan State to a field goal and a 17-16 win.
The starting job at quarterback was up for grabs this season, with Cook and Maxwell both returning and redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor also in the mix. There was even talk that freshman Damion Terry might be pressed into service, but he may redshirt now.
Michigan State's offense -- from the quarterbacks on down -- was unimpressive in wins over Western Michigan and South Florida. Before the Youngstown State game, Cook was told he wouldn't have to worry about any quarterback rotation -- that he would be the team's primary quarterback that day.
He looked confident, throwing for four touchdown passes in the first half of a 55-17 win, and when he did leave the game in the third quarter, victory was already pretty much assured.
Although the opponent wasn't on par with what the Spartans will face this weekend, Dantonio had seen enough to move forward with Cook as his quarterback.
"We have young quarterbacks, with the exception of Maxwell. I think they all have talent," Dantonio said. "I think Connor Cook is in his third year and you're starting to see some maturity on his part. Good things will start to happen -- gives you the ability to run the football as well. I can't say enough about Andrew Maxwell because of the way he's handled the situation."
Maxwell threw for 187 yards in a 20-3 loss to Notre Dame last year. As recently as a couple weeks ago, it looked as if Michigan State was headed for a similar output against the Irish this season. After all, Michigan State's defense scored four of the team's first six touchdowns.
Then the Spartans equaled their highest-scoring game since 2005.
"I think it was very important for our total team, we had success passing the football," Dantonio said. "That was a combination of guys catching the ball, like on those 50-50 catches I talk about, or great throws. So, again, we're growing as a football team."
In 2010, Michigan State looked untested after wins over Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic to start the season. An overtime victory over Notre Dame gave the Spartans legitimacy, and they ended up starting 8-0 en route to a share of the Big Ten title.
This year's team still has a lot to prove, but this weekend is a big opportunity.
"I want our guys to have fun down there. I want us to compete," Dantonio said. "Connor Cook is going to do that. No doubt in my mind he's going to do that."
By NOAH TRISTER