At the beginning of the season, Washington State coach Mike Leach played coy with the media — as he often does — over his choice for starting quarterback.
The Cougars had four candidates and Leach wryly said it would be a “thrill a minute” to discover which one would emerge.
Gardner Minshew II ultimately overcame the competition, taking on the tough job of replacing record-breaking starter Luke Falk while also stepping into a role meant for Tyler Hilinski, Falk’s successor who took his own life in January.
Since then, Minshew has become one of the surprises in the current Pac-12 quarterback class as past stars like Washington’s Jake Browning and Arizona’s Khalil Tate have been uneven in the early going.
“You come into the game thinking, ‘Oh wow, finally, Luke Falk is gone’ and maybe you’re going to catch a break. But Gardner Minshew is just as good,” said USC coach Clay Helton. “What I’ve been extremely impressed with is not only is he making great decisions, I mean he’s completing like 70 percent, but you can tell the confidence that the staff has in him. … He’s a special talent.”
The Trojans (1-2) will host Washington State (3-0) on Friday night.
Minshew is a graduate transfer who played the past two seasons at East Carolina. The mustachioed Mississippi native originally committed to Alabama, but changed his mind to play for Leach, who asked him “How’d you like to lead the country in passing?” the first time they met.
“I think the team just responded well to him,” Leach said Tuesday about settling on Minshew as his starter.
Minshew completed an eye-popping 45 of 57 passes for 470 yards and two touchdowns in Washington State’s 59-24 victory over Eastern Washington last weekend.
“Yeah man, it’s awesome, it’s so much fun,” he said afterward. “Winning, putting up 59 points, all that, it’s all fun. Having receivers that make plays, the running backs, O-line — man, I’m having a blast right now.”
As a result of that performance he was named Pac-12 Player of the Week. Minshew also ranks third in the nation with 1,203 total passing yards this season, behind only Hawaii’s Cole McDonald and Colorado State’s K.J. Carta-Samuels.
He’s ranked first in the nation with an average of just over 401 passing yards a game. The next closest in the conference is Arizona’s State’s Manny Wilkins with 319.3. Minshew also tops the nation with an average of 39 completions a game.
Minshew has eight total touchdowns so far, tied with Colorado’s Steven Montez and second only to Justin Herbert of Oregon (12), who have both seen early season success, too.
Montez and the Buffaloes have a bye this weekend but Herbert will play in the marquee Pac-12 matchup on Saturday between the No. 20 Ducks and No. 7 Stanford.
Browning, who faces Arizona State on Saturday, is coming off Washington’s 21-7 victory over Utah. He completed 14 of 24 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown, while also running for another. He also threw an interception.
After the game, teammate Myles Gaskin took issue with the criticism Browning has endured.
“I feel like people don’t respect Jake as much as they should. He’s been a four-year starter, he’s been a leader of this team for four years; he came in as a true freshman and played his heart out and has been playing his heart out this whole time,” Gaskin said.
Tate tweaked his ankle in the Wildcats’ opener against Houston and hasn’t been able to rely on his explosive running ability. But he broke through with his arm last week, throwing for 349 yards and five touchdowns in a 62-31 victory over Southern Utah. Arizona visits Oregon State this weekend.
Minshew, who has said that someday he’d like to coach, said he’s gaining confidence as the season progresses.
“Yeah, getting comfortable with the receivers, getting comfortable with our run checks, just operating the offense,” he said. “I feel like we’re getting better as an offense each week.”
The only thing that has been lacking so far this season is a good nickname. Graduate assistant Drew Hollingshead dubbed Minshew “Mississippi Moustache” because of his distinctive facial hair and his home-state drawl.
Minshew was getting a little tired of the “Napoleon Dynamite” references.
“It’s better than Uncle Rico, I’d say,” he laughed.