Hair-rais­ing QB has Cougars in play­off hunt

Ex­cited Wash­ing­ton State fans don fake mus­taches to honor na­tion’s lead­ing passer Gard­ner Min­shew.

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Brent Schroten­boer

PULL­MAN, Wash. – Gard­ner Min­shew had two very dif­fer­ent op­tions to con­sider this year.

Op­tion 1: He could spend his fi­nal sea­son of col­lege foot­ball at de­fend­ing na­tional cham­pion Alabama, most likely as a backup quar­ter­back.

Op­tion 2: He could be­come the po­ten­tial starter at Wash­ing­ton State, a team that was re­build­ing and still griev­ing af­ter the sui­cide of its top re­turn­ing quar­ter­back.

“It wasn’t that hard,” Min­shew says of his de­ci­sion now. But he didn’t quite ex­pect it to turn him into a lo­cal cult hero of sorts eight months later.

The mus­ta­chioed Min­shew, a na­tive of Mis­sis­sippi, is the na­tion’s lead­ing passer at 391 yards per game. He’s led No. 8 Wash­ing­ton State to an 8-1 record and an im­prob­a­ble run into the hunt for the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off. And he’s done it with the flair of a Burt Reynolds movie char­ac­ter from the

1970s, in­spir­ing fans to copy his look by wear­ing sun­glasses, head­bands and fake hair on their up­per lips. Con­sider:

❚ A Cougars gear store near cam­pus, Crim­son & Gray, is sell­ing fake mus­taches now for $2.

❚ In nearby Col­fax, busi­nesses are plan­ning to give out free fake mus­taches on Nov. 21 and 23. Their pro­mo­tion was go­ing to be named “Gard­ner Min­shew Days” un­til they re­ceived word that us­ing his name would vi­o­late NCAA rules against com­mer­cial pro­mo­tion of am­a­teur ath­letes.

❚ In last week’s 19-13 win against Cal­i­for­nia, WSU coach Mike Leach no­ticed this craze, too.

“There were a lot of mus­tached wom- en in the stands,” Leach said.

Yet it all came pretty close to never hap­pen­ing, hing­ing on that de­ci­sion by him in March, which car­ried con­sid­er­able risk.

Should he move to a cam­pus with the low­est ath­let­ics rev­enue in the Pac-12 and join a team that had six as­sis­tant coaches leave in the off­sea­son and was prac­ti­cally start­ing over? Or should he go to the most dom­i­nant pro­gram in the land, where the com­pe­ti­tion might be tougher but he also was of­fered a chance to join the coach­ing staff next year as a grad­u­ate stu­dent?

And what if he had made the op­po­site choice?

The 6-2 Min­shew grad­u­ated from East Carolina last De­cem­ber with one year of el­i­gi­bil­ity re­main­ing. Af­ter shar­ing time at quar­ter­back there in 2016

and 2017, he de­cided to trans­fer else­where for rea­sons he de­clined to say.

Alabama soon jumped to get him, hop­ing to add him as an in­sur­ance pol­icy at a po­si­tion that sud­denly had got­ten more com­pli­cated af­ter the na­tional cham­pi­onship game in Jan­uary. That’s when Alabama fresh­man quar­ter­back Tua Tago­v­ailoa came off the bench and won the game for the Crim­son Tide, dis­plac­ing reg­u­lar start­ing sopho­more Jalen Hurts.

“I was think­ing Jalen Hurts prob­a­bly was go­ing to trans­fer at that time,” Min­shew told USA TO­DAY this week. “So I was think­ing, ‘ You know, you’ve got a fresh­man who’s played not a full game of foot­ball.’ As a com­peti­tor, I was go­ing to take my chance.”

He com­mit­ted to the Crim­son Tide in Fe­bru­ary. Shortly af­ter­ward, he got a call from Leach, who of­fered him what his “Air Raid” of­fense al­ways can of­fer quar­ter­back re­cruits — a chance to throw the ball about 50 times a game.

Leach also was start­ing over with a group of quar­ter­backs who hadn’t thrown a pass in a ma­jor-col­lege game. Last year’s start­ing quar­ter­back, Luke Falk, ranked 12th na­tion­ally in pass­ing yards per game be­fore mov­ing on to the NFL. His backup, Tyler Hilin­ski, fa­tally shot him­self in an apart­ment near cam­pus in Jan­uary, leav­ing the team reel­ing. In stepped Min­shew.

“I was su­per grate­ful for ev­ery­thing (Alabama) Coach (Nick) Sa­ban was of­fer­ing, but this was a dream come true, re­ally,” Min­shew said.

A big rea­son for that is what might come next, be­cause of how he’s play­ing this year — a chance to play in the NFL. If he had stuck with Alabama, he’d have to com­pete for time with Hurts and Tago­v­ailoa, this year’s fa­vorite to win the Heis­man Tro­phy, ac­cord­ing to the USA TO­DAY Net­work Heis­man sur­vey. Min­shew is fourth.

If he hadn’t come to WSU, the Cougars might not be where they are now, clos­ing in on their first league ti­tle since

2002, less than a year af­ter Leach nearly left to coach Ten­nessee.

“We were kind of un­sure of what the sea­son would look like be­cause we had lost so many faces,” said Nick Begg, a se­nior de­fen­sive line­man.

But this is why WSU is pay­ing Leach

$3.5 mil­lion this year, to win de­spite those disad­van­tages. His Air Raid sys­tem is de­signed to ex­ploit in­ef­fi­cien­cies on the field, spread­ing the field hor­i­zon­tally and ver­ti­cally to stretch the de­fense and cre­ate space for ball­car­ri­ers.

Min­shew has mas­tered it at times, be­com­ing a ma­chine of short, quick throws that can wear out op­po­nents. He leads all Power 5 con­fer­ence quar­ter­backs with the high­est per­cent­age of pass­ing at­tempts that have trav­eled 5 or fewer yards past the line of scrim­mage (60.3 per­cent), not in­clud­ing yards gained af­ter a catch, ac­cord­ing to STATS, a sports data com­pany.

He’s also led his team on three gamewin­ning drives in the fourth quar­ter to add ex­tra magic to this sea­son, which in­cluded a rau­cous crowd on cam­pus last month for ESPN’s “Col­lege GameDay.” Three wins in their fi­nal three reg­u­lar-sea­son games would give the Cougars their first 11-win sea­son. They start go­ing for it Satur­day at Col­orado (5-4).

“How the soup came to­gether is pretty amaz­ing,” WSU ath­let­ics direc­tor Pat Chun said Wed­nes­day.

It’s been more than Min­shew. His block­ers are keep­ing him up­right, rank­ing fifth na­tion­ally with only seven sacks al­lowed in nine games. But he’s the one stir­ring the bowl, on the field and off, where his moxie in both places sort of re­minds Leach of the 1977 movie Smokey and the Ban­dit.

In that film, Reynolds played the mus­ta­chioed South­ern trucker who eluded his pur­suers with a show­boat­ing style that was fast and fun. In the cur­rent drama at WSU, Min­shew said he didn’t start grow­ing his own mus­tache un­til Au­gust. Then came more wins and more fans, who latched onto it as a sym­bol of the sea­son.

“I try to keep it light, try to keep it fun,” Min­shew said. “I think they just kind of re­spond to that, and it’s been pretty awe­some.”

USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Wash­ing­ton State’s Gard­ner Min­shew had com­mit­ted to Alabama af­ter grad­u­at­ing from East Carolina.

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