Mike Leach tells every quarterback he recruits the same thing: Come to Washington State and you can lead the country in passing. It’s a pretty enticing offer, and it works. And most of the time, the coach who popularized the Air Raid offense at college football’s highest level is right. Just ask Connor Halliday or Luke Falk, former QBs who accomplished that feat exactly in 2014 and ’15, respectively. Gardner Minshew is fulfilling the same prophecy with an eye toward a higher goal: College Football Playoff contention.
The graduate transfer’s backstory is well-known at this point. He graduated from East Carolina in December and sent his release to several schools. Alabama surprised him as the first to respond. He liked their pitch, which focused on the benefits the program could offer him as an aspiring coach, the job he wants to pursue after he’s finished playing. Minshew committed, thinking he would compete with Tua Tagovailoa (at the time he thought Jalen Hurts might transfer). Then came Leach, offering him a better chance to win a starting job. Minshew had always admired Leach and his offense—he read his book in eighth grade but admittedly hadn’t watched too many Wazzu games because of their regular late-night time slots. After thinking it over, Minshew changed his mind, called Saban to tell him, and moved west.
Seven months later, Minshew has the Cougars at 7–1 and No. 8 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, the highest the program has ever been since the format was introduced in 2014, by doing exactly what Leach told him he would do if he played for him: lighting up defenses and leading the country in passing. And he didn’t even go through spring ball, arriving in Pullman in May.
Minshew is far and away the nation’s most prolific passer: His 3,183 yards is 304 more than North Texas quarterback Mason Fine, who is No. 2 on that list; he’s averaging nearly 50 more yards (397.9) than Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins (350.1), who is a Heisman Trophy contender; he has thrown 26 touchdowns to just six interceptions—remarkable given his 414 pass attempts and 294 completions.
And Minshew says he doesn’t care much for stats. He came to Washington State to win games and put himself in position to make it to the NFL.
“The offense was a quick study for him to be able to do what he’s done,” says former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. “Washington State has been very good offensively since Leach has been there, but I also think this has gone to a different level. Maybe not statistically, but Gardner has taken it to another level.”
The Cougars sprinted to a 7–1 record last season, too, before they crashed back to Earth in a blowout loss to Arizona and finished 9–4. This August, Leach said he thought this team would be better than people thought, and now, with three of their final four games at home, they’re positioned to make it to the Nov. 23 Apple Cup against Washington without experiencing another loss.
“Gardner has a great understanding of that offense and I’m totally impressed,” Aliotti says. “He seems to go to his second and third reads in the pocket and really know where people are going to be. And he appears to be a better runner than the last two [quarterbacks]. He looks like a leader, guys are really following him. I think that’s the total package.
“I’m looking at Washington State at the start of this year and I’m not seeing a very good team and here they are sitting at 7–1 at the top of North division and a large part of that has been because of Gardner Minshew’s ability.”
In last week’s 41–38 comeback victory at Stanford, Minshew went 24 of 27 for 237 yards in the second half to bring his team back from a 14-point deficit. His final stats: 40 of 50 for 438 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Up next is Cal, which upset Washington last week and beat the Cougars 37–3 last year, picking off Falk five times. A Wazzu loss would effectively end the Pac-12’s playoff hopes by ensuring the eventual conference champion having at least two losses and a weaker strength of schedule than its Power 5 peers.
“Heck yeah,” Minshew says when asked if he could have envisioned the quick success that’s transpired this year. “I mean, we weren’t going into the season thinking, ‘Let’s win six games, that’d be kinda fun.’ I mean, we step out there trying to win every game, and if I need to throw for 400 yards to do it, then that’s what we'll do. And if I need to hand it off 50 times, that’s what we’ll do. Stats are irrelevant. We’re winning games and we’re in a spot where we can control our own destiny.”
Perhaps none of this would be happening though, had Minshew not been the right fit. He came into a delicate situation following the tragic death of Tyler Hilinski, the Cougars’ projected starter who took his own life in January. Minshew didn’t know Hilinski, but he understood the emotional complexity of the locker room. Before addressing his new team for the first time, he asked captain Peyton Pelluer, one of the players who found Hilinski, if it was appropriate to speak.
“I can’t even imagine the things they had to go through,” Minshew says. “I didn’t know Tyler. I feel like I’ve gotten to know him through the stories that they tell and how they carry on his legacy. All I could do was try to be the best I could be and try to lead this team in the best way I know how while still being super respectful and understanding how much this team has gone through.”
The program welcomed Minshew—while honoring and carrying forward Hilinski’s legacy—by allowing its new quarterback to lead. Minshew earned respect through his performance, whether that was being first in team runs or making big plays at practice during fall camp, proving he could be someone they could count on.
“It’s really a credit to these guys,” Minshew says. “I really can’t thank them enough for allowing me to come in and lead without that much experience with them.”
Now he has the Cougars in unique territory. Defenses often struggle against the Air Raid because Washington State spreads teams out four wide—they have seven receivers with at least 20 receptions or more this season—and have enough weapons where taking one or two guys away won’t make much of a difference. One mistake can turn into a big play. And Minshew’s talent will make this team more dangerous down the final stretch of the season.
“Usually, the reps is what gets you to the point of where he is at,” says Cougars running backs coach Eric Mele. “The reps in the offense—not the complexity of our playbook, it’s not an encyclopedia of plays—but repetitions over and over again is what makes guys really effective in this offense. Just amazing how he has been able to grasp that and tailor it to how he plays the game.”
It wouldn’t be a normal college football season without November upsets. If a few more top teams fall, Minshew could have Washington State poised for a big finish.