Gardner Minshew pulled on a purple and gold uniform. For each home game, the Jimi Hendrix rock classic “Purple Haze” blared over the public-address system when he and his teammates ran onto the field. On the road, he completed an astounding 52 of 68 passes for 463 yards and a touchdown—and lost by 25 points to the Cougars.
An Apple Cup hallucination? A misplaced Husky football fantasy?
Nope, this was Minshew’s star-crossed 2017 season at East Carolina, where he did more sitting than playing, hardly resembled the nation’s leading passer that he is now at Washington State and, gasp, didn’t even have a mustache.
As a member of the purple-clad Pirates, Minshew suffered through a miserable 3-9 season. Duke transfer Thomas Silk beat him out at quarterback, relegating the Mississippi native to a back-up role for the first two games. Minshew started against Virginia Tech, got manhandled 64-17 and sent back to the bench for the next five outings. He reclaimed the starting job for the final four games, running up the aforementioned astronomical passing numbers in a losing effort against the Houston Cougars. As the No. 1 guy, Minshew led East Carolina to a lone victory, a 48-20 decision over Cincinnati.
Minshew has since traversed the country and found a home in Pullman, changed his number from 5 to 16, grown out his trademark ‘stache and put WSU on the verge of its finest season ever. He’s the center of attention as the 7th-ranked Cougars (10-1 overall, 7-1 Pac-12) host No. 16 Washington (8-3, 6-2) in the Apple Cup and entertain thoughts of playing in the league championship game, the Rose Bowl and, dare to dream, the college playoffs.
From this revealing Gardner Minshew background check, it’s on to 10 questions surrounding the battle for all the apples, a game that means a lot to a lot of people—including this Southern man doing his best Brett Favre impersonation in the Palouse. We begin this exercise by getting right to the point:
Which Minshew will show up? The savvy leader who threw seven touchdowns against Arizona last weekend or the man on the run who struggled through an 11-for-30 performance against Virginia Tech a year ago?
The Huskies recently have turned some fairly high-powered WSU quarterbacks into apple fritters, with Luke Falk, his three interceptions and a 27-point loss in Seattle quickly coming to mind. The latest UW defense is no pushover either. Yet this magical Minshew on a mission seems to have legs. The thinking here is he handles the added spotlight.
What’s the Pelluer family record in the Apple Cup?
Get out your calculators out: WSU linebacker Peyton Pelluer, with his injury waiver making him a sixth-year player, enters Friday’s matchup with an 0-5 mark, seeking salvation. Peyton’s father, Scott, went 0-4 as a Cougars linebacker (1977-80) and 3-2 as a UW assistant coach (1996-98, 2003-04). Scott’s brother, Steve, ended up 1-2 as a UW quarterback (1981-83). Peyton’s older brother, Cooper, finished 3-1 as a Huskies linebacker (2010-13). Scott and Steve’s father, Arnie Sr., was 2-1 as a WSU defensive end. Scott and Steve’s grandfather, Carl Gustafson, was 1-2 as a Cougars fullback (1925-27). The collective Pelluer tally: 10-17. Oh yeah, Arnie Pelluer Jr., a Stanford linebacker and younger brother of Scott and Steve’s, never appeared in an Apple Cup, but he went 0-4 against the UW and 2-2 against WSU (1985-89). Whew, pass the turkey.
What sort of Mississippi connections bring Minshew and Favre together?
The quarterbacks grew up in towns that are 130 miles apart—Minshew in Brandon, in the middle of the state, and Favre in Kiln, near the Gulf Coast. Minshew led his Brandon High Bulldogs to the 2012 6A state championship game and lost. Favre ran the ground-oriented Wishbone for North Central High and didn’t throw much. After briefly attending Troy University in Alabama, the well-traveled Minshew played a season for Northern Mississippi Community College in tiny Senatobia, Miss., (pop. 8,165) and then transferred to East Carolina (in North Carolina, of all places) and to WSU. Favre played collegiately at Southern Mississippi before becoming an NFL icon. In Cougars’ fall camp, coach Mike Leach offered this early appraisal of Minshew: “He kind of reminds me of a cross between Brett Favre and Jim McMahon.”
What’s the Friday weather report for Pullman?
The weatherman forecasts 100 percent chance of rain, snow overnight and temperatures topping out at 44 degrees. It should be uncomfortable. UW quarterback Jake Browning and Minshew each had difficulty throwing in inclement weather earlier this season. It should be interesting.
What's a Massimiliano?
That would be the given first name of WSU’s highly productive freshman running back, who’s also known as Max Borghi. The Colorado native of Italian ancestry has rushed for 333 yards and 7 touchdowns and caught 40 passes for 303 yards and 4 more scores. Eleven TDs for a reserve is not bad.
What will decide this Big Apple?
It might not sound all that sexy, considering all the rushing, passing and receiving talent available for this one, but whoever has the best offensive line play will come out ahead. The Cougars have started the same guys in every game and allowed just nine sacks, giving Minshew all kinds of time to do his thing. The Huskies’ have offensive tackle Trey Adams back, albeit a rusty Adams, and could provide a fearsome escort for running back Myles Gaskin, who’s just 39 yards shy of 5,000 in his career. Let the pancake blocks begin.
Who’s been drinking the Apple cider?
Everyone recognizes that this season-ender is a big game, especially one with a Pac-12 title berth and more on the line for both sides. But who’s really geographically invested in it? The Cougars will start 11 players from California, 5 from Washington, 2 from Louisiana, 2 from American Samoa and one each from Michigan and, yes, Mississippi. The Huskies will open with 9 players from California, 7 from Washington, 2 from Oregon and one each from Arizona, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. Winner: The UW, by two birth certificates.
Who will make the best Pac-12 title game opponent for Utah?
The Huskies beat the Utes 21-7 on the road; WSU topped them 19-13 at home. Both games were grinders. Utah has a new quarterback and running back now, and is in survival mode. Consensus: It's a toss-up, but Utah (8-3, 6-3) doesn’t beat either team in a rematch.
Best recruiting pitch in the past year?
That came from Leach, goading Minshew to rescind an oral commitment to transfer to Alabama, where he planned to be more like a graduate assistant and learn how to coach rather than worry about playing. The WSU coach’s blunt challenge: “Do you want to be a backup at Alabama or lead the nation in passing?"
OK, who wins the whole Apple pie?
In a year’s time, the Cougars have survived Leach’s serious flirtation with Tennessee (the Vols, now 5-6, should have hired him), Alex Grinch’s defensive coordinator departure (nobody’s happy at Ohio State these days), the Tyler Hilinski tragedy (it still hurts) and the enormous pressure of hosting ESPN’s Game Day (most fun ever). WSU has been the most endearing college football story this season. Why stop now? Peyton Pelluer breaks up the no-hitter. Minshew won’t lose his mustache but he and his teammates experience a close shave. WSU 35, UW 33.