Gardner Minshew and his mustache have been the subjects of many a national news segment, and for the countless fake hair-lip-donning aficionados of the Washington State football team, it felt like there was no end in sight for Cougs triumphs, buttressed by that good-natured southern boy’s string of Heisman-worthy showings.
That is, before the Mississippi-born-and-bred quarterback and his band of seventh-ranked Cougars ran into a blizzard – and the Washington Huskies, too.
Minshew went 26-of-35 for 152 yards and tossed two picks in WSU’s demoralizing 28-15 Apple Cup loss to No. 16 UW. That’s less than half of his now-second-worst passing yardage total (319 at Wyoming) and only about 39 percent of his season average 400 yards per game, which led the nation.
Minshew was a dark-horse Heisman trophy candidate, a designation that only seemed more and more suitable as the season progressed, and as he fashioned a succession of high-percentage and high-yardage totals beside superb touchdown-to-interception ratios.
The question of whether or not he’ll receive an invite to that Dec. 8 New York celebration of the nation’s best NCAA football players is more up in the air now than ever – and it was relatively uncertain, even before Minshew’s worst production bout.
What happened? How did the ostensibly unshakable Wazzu leader falter against the Chris Petersen-led Huskies, who now appear more than ever to have the Cougs’ number?
First, he said he “didn’t do enough to win” and recollected a “few (errant) throws” and a third-down slide in the first quarter where he “thought he had it, but I didn’t.” The very next rep – with WSU in scoring position – Minshew fumbled the snap, and the momentum (and the ball) returned to the purple, where it stayed for all but just a few minutes.
Minshew never really appeared relaxed in what began as a drizzle and morphed into a full-fledged snowstorm early in the second quarter. Despite his response of “very rarely” when asked if his hometown of Brandon, Miss., ever sees snow like that, Minshew contended that the blizzard had little to do with the outcome.
“They were playing in it too,” he resolved. “It’s all on us. It’s not on the weather or anything like that.”
Still, he’d never played in as icy a game as that – it was 70 degrees in his hometown on Friday afternoon – and it showed. Yes, UW defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake dialed up some exotic blitzes, which forced Minshew to shift around the pocket to a heightened extent, but oftentimes, even when his hogs gave him space, he’d misfire.
“When you’re in conditions like that, it’s kinda a random game,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “You slip or the other guy slips.”
Minshew was slipping, and it looked as though the pigskin slipped out of his hand a few times, too – on three occasions, in particular. His first interception was simply a late-half lob to the corner of the end zone, which was cut off by Byron Murphy.
On the second pick, he had time. Minshew slid in the direction of the near sideline, turned right, then fired one astray, behind Dezmon Patmon, who was on an inside hitch. UW linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven snagged it.
“That was on me – bad on me,” Minshew said.
Moreover, there were two dropped interceptions – one on the first throw of the game and one at the onset of the fourth quarter.
There’s also an argument to be made that this was easily the best defense (and overall team) that WSU’s faced this year. The Huskies, who forced Minshew to frequently check out of reads, rank No. 10 nationally in scoring defense and boast the 28th-greatest passing ward in the country.
All things considered, Minshew and WSU “did a lot of good things.” He still leads the NCAA in yards passing by about 400 and – until this weekend – was tied for first in the FBS with 36 touchdown heaves. Additionally, Minshew still sits top five in completion percentage (70.4).
And WSU’s got 10 wins for only the sixth time ever, so perhaps the legend of the Mississippi Mustache will persist through this spoiled apple, to the Big Apple, to bowl season and beyond.
“(Minshew’s) had a huge impact and he did it in a short amount of time,” Leach said, “which I think made it all the more impressive.”