Every year Chris Simms, former NFL QB and now media personality on NBC Sports puts out his top 40 NFL QB list. It got me thinking about MSU, Captain Kirk, Connor Cook, Drew Stanton, and all the great (and not so great) QBs I’ve seen come through East Lansing. I decided to dig through the annals of history to make my own top 40 list.
There’s a lot that goes into ranking QBs, do we do it based on personal accolades, team success, talent? It’s an incredibly subjective process that involves a lot of players I wasn’t around to see, but as a football historian it was incredibly fun and insightful to go through Spartan football history and put together my list of the top 40 QBs in program history.
40) Rocky Lombardi (2018-current):
Remember Lombardi’s first start against Purdue? 318 yards and 2 TDs with 0 INTs? What happened? It all went downhill from there in Lombardi’s 2018 season coming in for an injured Brian Lewerke, partly to blame is the coaching staff for failing to put him in positions to succeed, but he didn’t exactly look the part of a high level college QB. All that said he should be in the running for the starting job in 2020 and we’ll see if he can move his way up the list next season.
39) Mike Panitch (1956-1958):
Panitch’s place on this list comes largely due to his role in the 1957 national title year. He was primarily a backup/role player over his 3 years in East Lansing, but finished his career with nearly 900 total yards and 11 TDs.
38) George Mihaiu (1970-1972):
Mihaiu was never a full time starter for the Spartans, but he contributed pretty heavily in 3 straight years, the last three years of Duffy Daugherty’s East Lansing career. A duel-threat, Mihaiu finished his career with 684 passing yards and 560 rushing yards. The reason he’s not higher on the list? An impressive 0-8 TD-INT ratio.
37) Bill Feraco (1967-1968):
In 1967, MSU was coming off back to back years with shared national titles and top 2 finishes in the AP poll, they came into the season as the pre-season #3 team in America with new starting QB Bill Feraco. Unfortunately in that season the Spartans went 3-7 and Feraco didn’t have a great year. In 1968 Feraco came back and put together a respectable season splitting time at the position with Bill Triplett, giving the Spartans over 550 total yards and 8 TDs in a 5-5 season that included a win against the #5 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
36) Keith Nichol (2009-2011):
Here we have an interesting dynamic, because Keith Nichol had a very impactful career at Michigan State (we all remember the hail mary). However, if were judging him by his quarterback merits, there wasn’t a huge impact. In 2009 Nichol threw 4+ passes in 6 games, including a win against Illinois in which he took over as the full starter for an injured Kirk Cousins. A highly touted transfer from Oklahoma, Nichol ended his career with 1,588 total yards and 10 TDs.
35) Bert Vaughn (1978-1980):
Bert Vaughn was a backup the majority of his career, but due to injuries and mop up duty saw some playing time in the 1978 Big Ten championship season, and the 1979 season when he threw for over 700 yards and 4 TDs.
34) Clark Brown (1983):
Brown started for the better part of the 1983 season in George Perles’ first season. Unfortunately the access to box scores aren’t too easy to find, but Brown put together just over 800 yards and 4 TDs in that year which included a win on the road against #4 Notre Dame in the 2nd week of the season.
33) Andrew Maxwell (2012):
Maxwell saw a bit of time as a backup throughout his career, but 2012 was his lone starting season, a season that was a giant step back between the Kirk Cousins success and Connor Cook. Of course we can’t put all the blame for that year on Maxwell, but there was a reason Cook took over in the TCU Buffalo Wild Wings bowl at the end of the year. He threw for over 200 yards 6 times that year, if we are going to say something nice.
32) Ryan Van Dyke (1998-2001):
A career backup who saw a lot of playing time over the course of his career under Nick Saban and Bobby Williams, Van Dyke put together quite the career in East Lansing. His first two seasons saw him come in for relief for Bill Burke for moments, but 2000 he saw quite a bit of time throwing for greater than 10 attempts in 5 games, including 292 yards on 70% passing in a loss to Michigan.
31) Mike Rasmussen (1970-1971):
There’s something to be said for a two year starter, and at this point in the list that’s about all it takes. Rasmussen oversaw the tail end of Duffy Daugherty’s career, and will best be remembered for a road win against Ohio State in 1971.
30) Damon Dowdell (2001-2004):
There are places on this list for career backups, but as far as backups go, Dowdell played quite a bit. Backing up both Jeff Smoker, and Drew Stanton in his 1st season starting, Dowdell threw 10 or more attempts in 13 games over his career, most of which came in 2002 when Jeff Smoker was suspended for a violation of team rules. Dowdell ended up with over 2,000 yards and a 16-12 TD-INT ratio.
29) Bryan Clark (1979-1981):
Clark started the better part of two seasons following the 1978 conference title, 1979 he started a little more than half the year, while 1981 the job was his. The team went 10-12 in those two seasons, but Clark’s play statistically wasn’t bad. For his career Clark finished with about 2,700 yards and 20 TDs (with 20 INTs).
28) Tyler O’Connor (2014-2016):
There is one reason, and one reason alone for TOC being ranked this high. November 21st, 2015, Columbus Ohio. Only 89 yards and a TD toss to Trevon Pendleton, but he led the charge taking down the #3 Ohio State Buckeyes, kept the season afloat, and played a part in the CFB Playoff berth. He also oversaw the 2016 season, but we can just keep pretending that year didn’t happen.
27) John Leister (1980-1982):
Leister finished his career with 3,999 yards, just shy of being the 13th Spartan with 4k. He also started during the forgettable Muddy Waters years, going 10-23 in his three years in East Lansing. His 1980 season saw the team go 3-8, but he did throw for over 1,500 yards and 10 TDs, so there’s that I guess.
26) Tom Wilson (1959-1960):
Wins against both Michigan and Notre Dame led Wilson to a 6-2-1 season that finished 15th in the AP poll. In that season Wilson threw for over 700 yards and 8 TDs, which given the era is a very impressive stat line.
25) Bill Triplett (1968-1969):
Triplett was a two year starter in the tail end of Duffy Daugherty’s career, who may have some underwhelming passing stats, but finished his career with just under 800 rushing yards and 22 total TDs and a home win against UofM in the 1969 season.
24) Todd Schultz (1996-1997):
Todd Schultz started 2 seasons under head coach Nick Saban, and finished his career with over 4,000 yards and 27 TDs. However, he will be remembered for his 1997 season when he had MSU 5-0 and as high as #11 in the AP poll. A bad run in the middle of the season caused them to finish 7-6, but a shining moment was a 49-14 win against a top 10 Penn State team when Schultz threw 2 TD passes.
23) Tony Banks (1994-1995):
I give Tony Banks a lot of credit for holding the program together at the QB position during a very difficult time. The 1994 season officially goes down in the record books as a winless season due to a “lack of institutional control” causing MSU to forfeit the 5 wins they racked up on the year under George Perles’ last season. Banks then became the first starter under new HC Nick Saban. That year they went 6-5-1 with a win against #7 Michigan in East Lansing.
22) Jim Miller (1991-1993):
If TD-INT ratio is your thing, Jim Miller likely isn’t your guy (he finished his career with 17 TDs and 29 INTs). He is also one of only 10 Spartan QBs to finish his career with more than 5,000 yards. As far as team success goes, Miller’s best year came in 1993 when MSU finished 6-6 including a win against a top 10 UofM squad.
21) Pete Smith (1961-1962):
Pete Smith was a two year starter under Duffy Daugherty who attempted 153 passes in his career (for comparison’s sake Brian Lewerke finished with over 1,200). His place on this ranking is largely due to team success, namely the 1961 season when MSU finished 7-2 with a #8 spot in the AP Poll, a season which included a 28-0 win in Ann Arbor against a #6 ranked UofM team.
20) Jim Ninowski (1956-1957):
Unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot of information about Ninowski readily available online, however we do know that he was the starting quarterback in 1957 when MSU finished the year with a shared National Title. That season he threw for an impressive 718 yards and 6 TDs with just 3 INTs at a time where INTs were much more widespread.
19) Charles Baggett (1973-1975):
A three year starter, Baggett was a duel threat player who led the 1973 Spartans to finish #12 in the AP poll at the end of the season. While he never passed for 1,000 yards in a season, he did finish his career with 1,706 yards rushing, good for 9th on the all-time rushing list at MSU.
18) Dean Look (1957-1959):
Dean Look played RB for his first two years under Biggie Munn, which included a shared national title in 1957. However, Look took over at the quarterback spot in 1959 and finished 6th in the Heisman trophy voting after throwing for nearly 800 yards and 9 TDs which led the conference.
17) Brian Hoyer (2006-2008):
Hoyer oversaw the Spartans in their transition from John L Smith to Mark Dantonio, and held the program together during those final years under Smith, for that, he deserves some credit. He also was the cause of a lot of stress during my younger years with at times infuriating decision making. The connection with Devin Thomas was special, and he still remains in the top 10 in passing yards and touchdowns in program history.
16) Jimmy Raye (1966-1967):
If you quarterback a national championship winning team, you belong high on this list regardless of your personal accolades. As a dual-threat quarterback Raye led MSU to the 1966 title which included a tie in the fabled “game of the century” against Notre Dame in the final game of the season.
15) Bobby McAllister (1987-1988):
Bobby McAllister doesn’t have the stats or personal accolades that the 13 in front of him has, but he can always hang his hat on the 1987 season when he led MSU to a 9-2-1 record, beating 6 top 20 teams en route to a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl victory over USC.
14) Al Dorow (1949-1951):
As the architect of MSU’s 1st national championship in 1951 under Biggie Munn, Dorow’s spot on this list is well deserved. A two year starter, Dorow went 17-1, and finished his career as an All-American, a national champion, and wound up coming back to East Lansing as an assistant to legendary coach Duffy Daugherty where he was a part of two more national titles in 1965 and 1966.
13) Dave Yarema (1984-1986):
Dave Yarema doesn’t have any Big Ten titles to his name, in fact his teams never finished better than 7-5 in three years as the starting quarterback. However he found himself high on the career passing lists at MSU, to this day he’s #6 in passing yards and #7 in TDs, and that has to count for something.
12) Steve Juday (1963-1965):
A rare pocket passer in the 1960s, Steve Juday led the Spartans to an incredible run, culminating in 1965 where MSU finished the season with a share of the National Championship. In that season Juday finished 6th in Heisman voting throwing for over 1,200 yards and 7 TDs.
11) Bill Burke (1998-1999):
Bill Burke will largely be remembered as the quarterback in Nick Saban’s last year, where they finished 10-2 and the #7 team in the NCAA. He should be remembered as one of the finest QBs East Lansing has seen. In just two years as a starter, MSU went 16-8, and Burke finished #8 on the all time passing yards list, and #5 for passing touchdowns.
10) Brian Lewerke (2017-2019):
The year was 2017, Brian Lewerke just finished his 1st season as the starting quarterback, going 10-3 with 3,352 total yards and 25 TDs capped off by a bowl performance for the ages. I wasn’t alone in thinking we found the next guy who would continue the success we had under Connor Cook. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, a combination of a lack of improvement and injuries led to stagnant play from the QB, and underwhelming team success. All that said he finished his career as a top 5 passer to go along with 1,255 yards and 10 TDs on the ground.
9) Dan Enos (1989-1990):
Before he became a coach, Dan Enos was quite the QB at Michigan State. His passing numbers won’t wow you, but the team success can’t be denied, going 12-4 in conference games over his two years as a starting quarterback. In 1990 Enos led the Spartans to a Big Ten championship, and remains 4th all time in completion percentage in program history.
8) Earl Morrall (1953-1955):
Another trail blazer for the MSU program, Earl Morrall will best be remembered for the 1955 season when he finished 4th in the Heisman voting after leading MSU to a 9-1 record capped off by a Rose Bowl victory against UCLA. Think about this, Earl Morrall threw for 274 yards in a game in the 1950s.
7) Jeff Smoker (2000-2003):
Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Jeff Smoker holds a special place in my heart as the QB of my childhood, where my first Spartan memories involve walking into Spartan Stadium to the awesome banners gracing the south entrance. There wasn’t a ton of team success under Jeff Smoker, but with Bobby Williams and John L Smith roaming the sideline who can blame him? After two years with Charles Rodgers, Smoker actually had his best season as a QB in his senior season throwing for 3,400 yards and 21 TDs with an 8-5 team record.
6) Tom Yewcic (1951-1953):
Never heard of Tom Yewcic? Here’s your quick history lesson. In 1952 Yewcic moved from h-back to Quarterback, led the Spartans to a national championship and was named an All-American. In 1953 he led them to Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA. In 2003 he was named to the MSU Hall of Fame, and goes down in history as one of the best players in the history of the program, and a guy who put them on the map in the beginning stages of college football history.
5) Ed Smith (1976-1978):
When Ed Smith finished his career he was the Big Ten career leader in passing yards after 3 productive seasons at MSU with star WR Kirk Gibson (yes that Kirk Gibson). A 3 year starter at MSU, Smith led the team to a 15-6-1 record his final 2 season, including a Big Ten championship in 1978. Even though he played in a different era of college football, he still ranks in the top 10 in program history in passing yards and TDs (with over 400 less attempts than Brian Lewerke).
4) Drew Stanton (2004-2006):
You won’t see a lot of team success under Drew Stanton, but you certainly cant blame him for that. A dynamic dual-threat QB, he not only is the career leader in completion percentage, and in the top 8 for passing yards and TDs, but he finished his career with 1,500 yards (11th in MSU history) and 15 TDs (12th in MSU history) on the ground. His leading WRs for his 3 years starting? Kerry Reid and Jerramy Scott.
3) Willie Thrower (1949-1952):
When you look at personal accolades, you won’t see Willie Throwers name come up on All American teams or Heisman voting lists. But when you look at impact on the game of football, his name is right up at the top. The first black quarterback in big ten history, the first black quarterback in NFL history, and one of the most impactful football players in the history of the game. Willie Thrower was a 2-time national champion who could allegedly throw a ball 70 yards. He also went 3-0 against Michigan if all that wasn’t enough.
2) Kirk Cousins (2009-2011):
Without Captain Kirk, I’m not sure if we see the success we do under the #1 player on this list. Kirk Cousins was the catalyst for all the success we’ve come to experience under Mark Dantonio in the early-mid 2010s, and boy were there some awesome moments, including the hail mary against Wisconsin, and the comeback win against Georgia in the Outback bowl. Kirk Cousins not only led us to our first Big Ten championship in 2 decades, not only led us to a berth in the 1st Big Ten Championship game, not only went 3-0 against Michigan, but ended his career as the best passer in program history, leading in both career yards and TDs until Connor Cook came around.
1) Connor Cook (2013-2015):
The most accomplished QB in MSU history by just about every metric. The career leader in both passing yards and touchdowns, Cook led MSU to 2 Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl win, and a college football playoff berth. He went 36-5 in his 3 year stretch as our starting QB (including 3-0 against UofM), and along with Mark Dantonio, vaulted MSU to success we haven’t seen in 60 years. There were so many great moments we can point to, the MVP performance against Ohio State in the B1G championship, the MVP performance at the Rose Bowl, the MVP performance against Iowa in his 2nd B1G championship game, ripping the trophy away from Archie Griffin. He finished his career as a 2-time 2nd team All-Conference performer, and was a 1st teamer in 2015, he was named the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner as the best senior QB in the NCAA ,and for as much as some of these other QBs have accomplished, Connor Cook should be a consensus pick as the #1 quarterback in program history.