Not long after the Washington Huskies, the preseason favorite to run away with the Pac-12, lost 12–10 at Cal, the game in Palo Alto became a battle for the Pac-12 North.
With a 42-yard field goal with 19 seconds to go, No. 14 Washington State took a firmer hold on the division by defeating No. 24 Stanford, 41–38. With the win, Mike Leach’s team went to 7–1—and 4–1 in conference play. The worst of its conference slate—Utah, Oregon and now Stanford—is behind it, and it’ll be a relatively smooth road to the Apple Cup for the Huskies, who get Cal next week, then a slumping Colorado team, then Arizona.
The Pac-12 in 2018, as in years past, has in large part cannibalized itself. It’s seen nine of its 12 teams ranked in at least one week’s AP poll, and in the North, only Oregon State has missed the top 25. It makes sense, then, that only one team, the Cougars, has a single conference loss, and none is undefeated. And while that might ultimately doom the conference in the playoff race—only Washington State seems to have a realistic shot at this point—it does make for a wild season.
Rising from the morass are the Cougars and quarterback Gardner Minshew, whom Leach called the best quarterback in the country in his postgame comments. On Saturday evening, he looked the part, completing a whopping 40 of 50 pass attempts for 438 yards. He averaged 8.8 yards per completion and tossed three touchdown passes, and the Cougars proved that a passing game that good can mitigate an imbalanced attack. Washington State finished with just 59 yards on the ground.
“We’re underdogs that expect to win,” Minshew said after the game.
The Cougars will be fighting an uphill battle the rest of the year, no matter how much they might be able to coast in November. With a weak nonconference slate—Wyoming, San Jose State and Eastern Washington—and their one loss, to USC, looking worse with every passing week, the Cougars will have a hard time edging a one-loss team from any of the other Power 5 conferences should they run the table from here. The silver lining, perhaps, is Minshew’s season, in which he’s been consistently great. His worst game came in Week 1 against Wyoming, when he threw for 319 yards, completing 66.7% of his passes for three touchdowns and an interception. Read that again: His worst game. On the year, the transfer from East Carolina is completing 71% of his passes, and he’s thrown 23 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Leach’s praise may just be warranted, and as the schedule moves to November, Minshew’s Heisman odds should continue to improve if he keeps up this clip.
Lost in those big offensive numbers is the Cougars’ defensive effort. Washington State has been no slouch on that side of the ball this season—going into Saturday, it was allowing opponents 23.3 points per game, good for 49th of 130 FBS teams—but at halftime, it had already given up 28 points to the Cardinal. The Cougars were down, 28–17, and they needed stops to get back in the game. That’s what they got; before Stanford’s game-tying touchdown with just more than a minute to go, the Cardinal had only 97 yards of offense on the half.
And in the end, 1:25 was too much time to leave Minshew and company. Down to the wire, trying to avoid overtime, Minshew was exacting as the Cougars drove down the field, completing first down after first down and even scrambling on fourth down to extend the drive—toward the win, and toward the top of the Pac-12 North.