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John Blanchette: Gardner Minshew saves his best trick for last – making a bowl game memorable

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 29, 2018, 12:03 a.m.

SAN ANTONIO – Gardner Minshew II wrote his final chapter at Washington State University on Friday night – presuming the school doesn’t grant him an honorary doctorate at spring commencement.

And the pages of that last chapter turned themselves.

When Iowa State’s Willie Harvey reached ramming speed and drove the crown of his helmet straight at Minshew’s nose early in the second quarter of Friday’s Alamo Bowl, all the Washington State quarterback did was take the lick and bounce back to his feet. Harvey’s college career was over by ejection; Minshew’s rolled on – with a slightly bent face mask.

A couple of minutes later, the pocket crumbling around him, he back-stepped from a desperate dive by Iowa State’s Spencer Benton, spun out of the big arm of Matt Leo and scissored past Anthony Johnson and into the end zone – dropping the Cyclones into a two-touchdown hole, which was hardly insignificant.

And later still came another magnificent escape and a smart and nervy put of the shot to Tay Martin on third-and-10 to set up the saving touchdown in the Cougars’ 28-26 victory.

But none of those moments – individually or as a mash-up – could be viewed as the ultimate, lasting gift from football’s most remarkable college drop-in.

Which was this:

Gardner Minshew made it OK to give a damn about a bowl game again at Wazzu.

Yes, Cougs, there is a consolation prize, and it’s worth coveting.

In this case – and just for starters – it was 11 victories, more than any other Cougar football team.

(And even to the conference that did nothing to help them this year, the Cougs ended a nine-bowl losing streak for the Pac-12. How’s that for being gracious?)

From the moment the Cougars watched the final seconds tick off the clock at a sad and snowy Apple Cup, it was clear that Minshew in particular and the many teammates who picked up on them no-grim-faces vibe he brought to campus just last May planned to make the most of their December moment.

This has not been in the program’s DNA under coach Mike Leach, as experience has revealed.

But this time, the extra game wasn’t just an entrée to 15 more practices to reinforce all the old concepts and get a jump on developing the youngsters for next year. It wasn’t just a warm getaway and a swag bag.

Maybe those Holiday Bowl teams of the last couple of years truly cared; maybe not.

These Cougars needed.

And so when they did something selfish – like Marcus Strong’s silly taunt that wiped out his early pick-6 – they picked their teammate up by punching in the touchdown anyway. On third-and-12, no less.

And when drops bedeviled the receivers as the Cougs tried to distance themselves, Peyton Pelluer managed to strip a workhorse running back who’d had just one fumble in the last 550-plus touches and give Wazzu its final, and best, chance.

And when they need Minshew to be Minshew, he was almost more.

That was true on the improvisation that set up the Cougs’ clinching score, yes, but just as much when they were trying to close out the Cyclones and the clock. A first-down run had gone nowhere so you knew Leach wasn’t going to order up another. Instead, Minshew connected on a riskier back-shoulder throw to Dezmon Patmon – for 18 yards and the first down that finished it off.

The record book? He’s the Pac-12’s single-season yardage and completions record-holder now, and tied Luke Falk’s WSU touchdowns mark. Some significant Alamo Bowl records, too.

“But not nearly as significant as 11 wins,” he insisted.

Surely even Leach didn’t imagine this outcome when he made the fateful phone call when Minshew was grad-school shopping while finishing his East Carolina degree. But you could see him get swept up a little in the kooky Minshew vibe each week.

On Alamo eve, Leach explained one of his own shopping theories – that the first thing he looks for in a quarterback is accuracy, feeling it really can’t be taught. And Minshew is strong enough in that regard. But the fact is, it’s his feet and nerve that have taken Leach’s Air Raid to new places, and added a dimension the coach must recognize.

He certainly recognized the dimension added by Minshew and teammates’ no-step-back spirit, which moved him to declare that he “may be more proud of this team than any I’ve ever coached.”

Eleven wins will do that, but it’s not just the number.

“I’ve always been told to leave a place better than you found it,” Minshew said in summarizing his transformational transfer. “Myself and these seniors have done everything we could to create the great work patterns and this winning mentality.

“This place is really special. Being part of it’s an honor. And I can’t wait to see what they do in the future.”

Because it’s time to close the book on Gardner Minshew. There’s unlikely to be a sequel.

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