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Ralph Walter: For high-flying WSU, EWU, Whitworth football diehards – Yippie ki yay, mustache faithful!

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 20, 2018, 10:14 p.m.

And now for the big Hollywood ending.

Nearly three months after The Spokesman-Review kicked off the college football season with a special section inspired by classic sports films, we’re sprinting toward the kind of finish that would make even “Rudy” blush.

Three teams. Three championship contenders. Three unbelievable stories.

Incredibly, from the Palouse to Cheney to north Spokane, a trio of Northwest programs is still in the hunt for national titles – even though each has had to replace its record-shattering quarterback from a year ago.

Only real diehards – and we’re not talking “Die Hard 4” or 5 here – could have predicted this.

Yippee ki yay, mustache faithful!

At Washington State, Eastern Washington and Whitworth – whose teams are a combined 29-3 in 2018 – it all starts with their newest leading men.

Ready Player One

No tale has had as many plot twists as Washington State’s. The Cougars, a solid 9-4 last season, seemed destined for a tough 2018 following the graduation of QB Luke Falk and the tragic story of his heir apparent, Tyler Hilinski, who took his own life in January, leaving both the team and the Pullman community devastated.

Enter Gardner Minshew.

The graduate transfer quarterback arrived at Pullman in May by way of Mississippi, North Carolina and apparently the year 1977, seemingly wearing cowboy boots and driving a black Trans Am. From all accounts, he won over teammates with swagger, charisma and charm; he later won over fans with a gunslinger approach and the most talked-about mustache in the Northwest since Adam Morrison was draining threes for Gonzaga basketball more than a decade ago.

“I think he has a tremendous influence on our team,” WSU coach Mike Leach said of Minshew on ESPN GameDay last month. “He’s always been the guy who kind of livens up the locker room.”

And he’s lit up the scoreboard, too. So far, Minshew has completed more than 70 percent of his passes for 36 touchdowns and a nation-best 4,325 yards for the 10-1 Cougars, who are seventh in the latest AP Top 25 poll and eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings.

His odds of winning the Heisman Trophy remain long – probably about as long as the Cougars being able to sneak into the CFP’s Final Four – but as Minshew has proven, anything is possible.

And if WSU can close with an Apple Cup victory against Washington on Friday night and manage to win the Pac-12 Championship the following Friday, January could be a blockbuster month for the Cougars.

A Star is Born

Unlike WSU, Eastern Washington entered the season with high expectations – and a chip on its shoulder after a 2017 FCS playoff snub. Led by All-American QB Gage Gubrud and the return of 16 other starters from last season’s 7-4 team, EWU certainly looked the part of 2018 championship contender.

But that narrative changed dramatically on Sept. 29 in a 34-17 victory at Bozeman, where Gubrud – a two-time Walter Payton Award finalist – suffered a season-ending toe injury.

Suddenly, sophomore Eric Barriere was thrust into a starring role.

The fleet-footed Barriere responded by winning five of six games as a starter and adding another dimension to EWU’s high-octane offense. In addition to his 1,503 yards passing, he’s rushed for another 542 while helping the Eagles secure a share of the Big Sky title, a first-round bye and the right to host a playoff game Dec. 1 at Roos Field.

And he seems to have EWU positioned for another deep FCS run and a trip back to Frisco, Texas, where the Eagles haven’t been since the 2010 championship season.

“He’s been awesome and his teammates trust him,” Eastern coach Aaron Best said. “He prepares well and he’s a playmaker. He may not be as fluid in the pass game and as concrete with certain things that Gage was exposed to, but he’s definitely a dynamic playmaker.”

Mission Impossible

It’s never easy to replace a departed starting quarterback. But for Whitworth, trying to replace Ian Kolste – a Pirates legend who holds just about every passing record at the school – it seemed an especially tough task.

But Leif Ericksen has been (Minnesota) Viking-like, completing nearly 63 percent of his passes for 2,622 yards and 24 touchdowns while leading the Whits to a 10-0 record and No. 11 ranking in Division III.

More important, the 6-foot-4 junior led his team to two of the biggest wins in school history: a 19-14 breakthrough victory over perennial power Linfield on Sept. 29 and last Saturday’s 48-6 win over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the first round of the playoffs, only the second D-III playoff victory in school history.

And now, he looks for his third – against fellow unbeaten Saint John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota, on Saturday morning.

Regardless of the outcome, and no matter what happens for Washington State and Eastern, college football in the Northwest has already earned two thumbs up.

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