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Analysis: Handicapping Gardner Minshew’s chances of becoming Washington State’s first Heisman Trophy finalist since 1997

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 1, 2018, 11:25 p.m.

Washington State  defensive lineman Nick Begg, background, smiles while embracing quarterback Gardner Minshew  after the Cougars defeated Cal 19-13  on Nov. 3 at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State defensive lineman Nick Begg, background, smiles while embracing quarterback Gardner Minshew after the Cougars defeated Cal 19-13 on Nov. 3 at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Between a snow layer that smothered the field at Martin Stadium for the better part of three quarters and a Washington defense that smothered the Cougars’ offense for all four, Gardner Minshew and Washington State never found their footing in a 28-15 loss to the Washington Huskies on Nov. 23.

That medley, the icy playing surface and the Huskies’ defense, buried the Cougars in the 111th Apple Cup, their chances of claiming the program’s first Pac-12 North title and, some seem to think, Minshew’s chances of earning a trip to New York City for next week’s Heisman Trophy ceremony.

The ceremony will be held next Saturday at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. The 870 media members and 58 ex-Heisman winners who vote on college football’s top prize are required to have their ballots submitted by 2 p.m. Monday and Minshew will know later that night if he’s bound for New York.

But will an Apple Cup dud keep Washington State’s quarterback out of the Big Apple?

Minshew’s teammates have already vouched for him.

“Absolutely, 100 percent,” wide receiver Kyle Sweet said, asked if the QB deserves a trip to NYC. “He’s not just a heckuva quarterback, but he’s an incredible person too. He makes everyone better around him.”

Now he just needs the Heisman voters to see it through the same lens.

For all intents and purposes, five players – all quarterbacks – are still in the Heisman race. Voters can submit three names and it’s presumed that no ballot will be cast without the names of Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray.

Tagovailoa came into conference championship Saturday with the best odds of winning the Heisman, at -500 according to OddShark. But Murray wasn’t far off, at +350, and probably increased his chances with three touchdowns in the Big 12 championship game, while Tagovailoa left the SEC title game with an injury after throwing two interceptions. A country mile behind those two are West Virginia’s Will Grier (+2,000), Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins (+3,300) and Minshew (+5,000).

At the minimum, at least one of those three will join Tagovailoa and Murray in Times Square a week from now. Up to six players, but no fewer than three, can attend the NYC-based event. In years when there may not be three clear-cut choices, up to six finalists can be selected if there’s a small enough point discrepancy between the third-place finisher and fourth-place finisher, between the fourth- and fifth-place finishers, and so forth.

The Heisman Trophy website references the 2010 vote. Four players, rather than five, were invited because of “a clear demarcation of support” between Kellen Moore (635 votes) and Justin Blackmon (105).

Grier and Haskins may collect more votes than Minshew, but as long as there isn’t a great disparity between their totals and those of the WSU QB, all five could be invited and the Cougars could send their first Heisman finalist to NYC since Ryan Leaf in 1997.

Haskins usurped Minshew as the national passing leader in Saturday’s Big Ten championship game, but Minshew will still finish the weekend No. 1 in yards per game at 373.1. When it comes to completion percentage, Minshew (70.6) has a slight edge on Haskins (69) and Grier (67).

Haskins led OSU to an 11-2 mark and a Big Ten title, throwing 46 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions. Minshew and the Cougars finished the regular season 10-2 behind 36 TDs and nine interceptions from the fifth-year graduate transfer. Grier’s count was 37 touchdown passes compared to eight interceptions, although the Mountaineers went 8-3 and lost their last two games – neither of which could be placed entirely on Grier’s shoulder seeing as how WVU scored 41 points in one game and 56 in the other.

Something else voters may take into account when sifting between those three could be strength of schedule, or perhaps the defensive fortitude of the conferences they play in. Haskins and Minshew have the advantage on Grier there. The Buckeyes faced three top-20 defenses this season (Michigan, Iowa and Michigan State) while the Cougars went toe-to-toe with three (UW, Cal and Utah). But there isn’t a Big-12 defense ranked in the top 20 and the best unit Grier faced was TCU, which ranks No. 26 in yards per game allowed. Thirteen spots down the list is the Iowa State team that beat Grier’s Mountaineers 30-14. Next to TCU and ISU, there isn’t another Big-12 defense ranked in the country’s top 50.

But Minshew’s demise could be his performance in the Apple Cup. Haskins, Grier and Minshew played in 36 combined games and the 28-15 loss to UW was the only one in which one of the three didn’t toss a touchdown pass. Minshew finished with a decent completion percentage of 74.3, but he also threw two interceptions.

While he had the worst game of those three, Minshew’s teammates and coaches would also lobby he had the best. The WSU QB completed 43 of 55 passes for 473 yards and seven touchdowns in a 69-28 thumping of Arizona – his sixth 400-yard game of the season. Haskins was mighty good against a far more impressive Michigan team, completing 20 of 31 for 396 and six TDs.

The OSU QB has had five 400-yard games while WVU’s Grier has hit the mark just twice.

Minshew could have locked in a trip to NYC with a stronger effort in the season finale. At the least, it would’ve bought him another game to state his case to the voters. Now the Heisman hopeful will have to wait out a nervous Monday to see how much the Apple Cup hurt his chances.

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