Mike Leach and Gardner Minshew may not have drawn it up exactly like this when the seventh-year Washington State coach recruited his next starting quarterback over the phone last spring, but by the end of the Cougars’ historic 10-win season, it was inevitable that the pair would be in the running for some major Pac-12 Conference awards.
The Cougars double-dipped Tuesday night when the league handed out its annual honors on the Pac-12 Networks.
Minshew, the fifth-year graduate transfer quarterback who didn’t arrive in Pullman until May, was named the Pac-12’s Offensive Player of the Year. For the second time in four years, Leach, who led the Cougars to their highest win total in 15 season, was named the Pac-12’s Coach of the Year. Leach and Stanford’s David Shaw shared the award in 2015.
It’s just the second time in school history and the first time since 1997 that WSU has had a coach and player honored for those awards in the same season. Quarterback Ryan Leaf and Mike Price were honored together in ’97.
The Pac-12 also announced three other awards Tuesday evening. Washington linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven won Defensive Player of the Year, Oregon State running back Jermar Jefferson won Offensive Freshman of the Year and Arizona State linebacker Merlin Robertson won Defensive Freshman of the Year.
Together, Leach and Minshew produced one of the most memorable seasons in school history and they can become the first quarterback-coach duo at WSU to win 11 games when the Cougars take on Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 28.
Leach, recognized as a founding father of the Air Raid offense along with Hal Mumme, needed somebody to lead his passing attack when he recruited Minshew in March, offering the East Carolina grad transfer an opportunity to, Leach’s words, “lead the country in passing yards.”
Previously committed to Alabama, where he likely would’ve been a third-string QB, Minshew jumped at the opportunity and won the Cougars’ starting job in August. By the midway point of the season, the Brandon, Mississippi, native was a Heisman Trophy candidate and the nation’s leading passer.
Minshew still leads the FBS in passing yards per game (373), pass completions (433) and pass attempts (613). He was the only quarterback in the country to throw for 400 yards in at least six games and led the Pac-12 with 36 touchdowns. Minshew also rushed for three touchdowns and was sacked only 11 times – once per every 55 pass attempt. He threw nine interceptions.
In addition to finding a diamond in the rough at the QB position, Leach successfully filled six coaching vacancies. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, longtime strength coach Jason Loscalzo and four position coaches departed last offseason, but the Cougars improved on defense under first-year DC Tracy Claeys, giving up 23.1 ppg after conceding 25.8 in Grinch’s final season.
Leach to replace 60 percent of his offensive line, but almost every metric indicates that the group improved in 2018. The O-line allowed 44 sacks in 2017, but only 11 this season, and WSU’s running backs averaged 3.7 yards per carry after getting only 2.9 a year ago.
Despite a 9-4 record in 2017, the Cougars were projected to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North at the start of the season. They opened the year outside of the Associated Press Top 25 and didn’t crack the national poll until week eight, but eventually rose to No. 7.
The Cougars went 12-25 in Leach’s first three seasons, but the coach has bumped his personal record at WSU to 48-40 after leading the program to a 36-15 record the last four seasons.
The other WSU coaches who’ve won Pac-12/10 Coach of the Year include Jim Walden (1981 1983), Dennis Erickson (1988), Mike Price (1997, 2001) and Bill Doba (2003).
Minshew is the . He joins running backs Reuben Mayes (1984, 1985) and Steve Broussard (1989), and quarterbacks Drew Bledsoe (1992), Ryan Leaf (1997) and Jason Gesser (2002).