EAST LANSING, Mich. — Tyler O’Connor has been at quarterback in one of the greatest victories in Michigan State football history and worked his way to the front of the line in 4 1/2 years with the Spartans.
Just short of a year ago this week in his first career start, the Lima Central Catholic graduate quarterbacked Michigan State to a 17-14 upset of Ohio State as an emergency replacement for the injured Connor Cook to derail the Buckeyes’ hopes of winning back-to-back national championships.
Saturday, when Ohio State goes to Michigan State, O’Connor will run out of the tunnel onto the field at Spartan Stadium for the final time in his career on Senior Day.
He has been the starting quarterback, lost the job and regained it this season after a redshirt year and three seasons of backing up Cook.
There are many ways to measure his almost five-year college football journey. One way is where he will start his run out of the tunnel before the game.
When he came out of the tunnel for the first time against Boise State in 2012 he was at the back of the pack. Saturday, he will be one of the first Spartans to hit the field just behind coach Mark Dantonio.
“It’s comforting to be at the front right next to the man in charge. That’s where I’ve always wanted to be,” O’Connor said on Wednesday, as he looked back at his college career.
Michigan State’s season has been anything but comforting. After starting with wins over Furman and Notre Dame, the Spartans lost seven in a row before beating Rutgers 49-0 last week.
“It’s been tough. It’s been mentally grueling for a lot of people,” O’Connor said. “It’s been kind of tough to figure out what the problem has been. We were on top of the world after beating Notre Dame. Then it was kind of a negative snowball effect. In previous seasons, it’s been kind of the opposite.
“I think the biggest thing we can take from this season is we’ve won a lot of close games in previous seasons and we had guys who knew how to win. This year we have a lot of young guys and other guys who haven’t known how to win as much,” he said.
O’Connor has thrown for 1,747 yards and 15 touchdowns with seven interceptions this season. He has completed 61 percent of his passes.
He was named the starting quarterback in the preseason over last year’s No. 3 quarterback Damion Terry and redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke. He started the first five games before Lewerke started against Northwestern and Maryland.
But after Lewerke suffered a broken leg, O’Connor has been the starter in the Spartans’ last three games.
As the starting quarterback on the first losing team in Dantonio’s 10 seasons at Michigan State, O’Connor has taken more than his share of heat from fans. But he has not been surrounded by the kind of talent Cook was when MSU was 36-5 over the last three seasons.
Three of last year’s offensive linemen and No. 1 receiver Aaron Burbridge, all of whom are on NFL rosters, are among the talented players who left after last season.
O’Connor said he was prepared for whatever the 2016 season threw at him.
“I’ve said from the beginning I’ve been ready for and willing to accept any ups and downs as the starting quarterback at Michigan State,” he said.
“You have to continue to stay positive and keep the guys around you positive. Obviously, there is a lot of weight on you being the quarterback here at Michigan State. But I’ve seen Connor go through it and been right there with him as he has gone through it.”
Earlier this season, Dantonio praised the senior quarterback’s ability to deal with a tough situation for the team and for him personally.
“He’s done an outstanding job. He’s an outstanding leader,” Dantonio said on a Big Ten coaches teleconference. “It’s very difficult when you go through a situation like this, especially when you’re the quarterback. I would say it’s probably almost as difficult as when you’re the head coach.”
O’Connor has spent some time looking at film of last year’s big win at Ohio State. But his interest is analytical, not nostalgic.
“I’m getting asked about it, probably more by the media than anybody, about what to take from it. The biggest thing you can take from it, I guess, is the confidence aspect of it. You can’t help but go back and watch film from last year and see all the things we were able to do against them. That’s probably the biggest thing. You can’t forget that,” he said.
“But I think the only time I’ve seen the TV copy of that game was one of those Big Ten Network Games in 60 Minutes. That’s the only time.”
Editor’s Note: Ohio State will play Michigan State Saturday at noon on ESPN.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.