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Sports >  WSU football

System of success: Washington State’s Anthony Gordon closing in on membership to one of college football’s most elite passing clubs

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 29, 2019

Washington State Cougars quarterback Anthony Gordon (18) was all smiles after the second half of a college football game on Saturday, November 23, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars quarterback Anthony Gordon (18) was all smiles after the second half of a college football game on Saturday, November 23, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

It is undeniable that in some sense Anthony Gordon is a system quarterback.

He plays at Washington State in the Air Raid, a system unabashed in its pursuit of first downs through the air, under a coach who doesn’t define “balance” as an even number of runs and throws, tossing aside that notion in favor of screens, slants and shovels.

Gordon has already attempted 585 passes this season, which is 138 more than any other Division I FBS quarterback. He is 906 yards ahead of LSU’s Joe Burrow, who has the next-most passing yards with 4,014.

The scale is most certainly tipped in Gordon’s favor as far as accumulating yards. But here he is, nonetheless, 80 yards shy of breaking into a club that currently has just a dozen members.

“That’s pretty cool,” said Washington Redskins quarterback Case Keenum, when told of Gordon’s proximity to the 5,000-yard threshold. “I know that list is probably pretty small.”

Just 15 times has a quarterback thrown for 5,000 yards in a single college season. Keenum did it three times at Houston. For all four of Keenum’s years in Houston, Kliff Kingsbury was there as a coach.

Kingsbury runs offenses in the mold of the very same one he excelled within as a quarterback at Texas Tech, where Mike Leach oversaw a blossoming of the Air Raid during 10 seasons in Lubbock.

Kingsbury himself is in the club: He threw for 5,017 yards in 2002, one of four years when a Leach-coached quarterback passed for 5,000 yards.

Graham Harrell, another Texas Tech quarterback, accomplished the feat twice, making it only 12 quarterbacks to throw for so many yards in a season.

Yes, there is something about the system that helps quarterbacks accumulate yards, Keenum said. But regardless of the system a team runs, the quarterback still needs to execute, he said.

“I’m sure Gardner (Minshew) and this kid now (Gordon) is getting some scouts telling him that he’s a system guy, and I thought that was a load of crap, because I embraced that system,” Keenum said. “Whatever system you put me in, I want to be the best quarterback in that system that I can be.

“If he’s throwing for 5,000 yards in that system, that’s pretty good.”

An elite club

Gordon has been asked multiple times about the milestone, and again this week he deflected the accolades that others might throw at him toward the players he throws to nearly every day of the football season.

“It’s pretty cool, but I’m sure the receivers may take pride in that because, I mean, they’re the ones getting me there,” Gordon told reporters Monday. “We’ve got 12 guys that catch the ball on this team, and they’re the most unselfish guys in the world. … I’m sure the receivers are a little more excited about the 5,000 mark than I am.”

Just how elite a club it is was news to another member, Bryant Moniz, who played a decade ago at Hawaii. He threw for 5,040 yards in 2010, when Hawaii went 10-4 under coach Greg McMackin. The Warriors ran a run-and-shoot offense, and Moniz described it in similar terms to how Washington State players talk about the Air Raid.

“One thing about the run and shoot that I know is that routes are adjustable. One play could run 12 different ways,” Moniz said. “It really takes a bond between the quarterback and the receiver to understand and be on the same page.”

When Moniz crossed the 5,000-yard mark, during a 411-yard effort in the 2010 Hawaii Bowl, he didn’t realize he’d done so, he said.

“I didn’t even know until after the game was done,” Moniz said. “I think as quarterbacks, or any athletes, most guys, we don’t really pay attention to that stuff. It’s more about winning and that’s it.”

Most of the teams with 5,000-yard passers have won plenty. Ten of those teams won 10 or more games, including Keenum’s 2011 Houston squad that went 13-1 and ranked 18th in the final AP poll.

Keenum praised Gordon for throwing for so many yards in the Pac-12, but he dismissed the notion that it was any easier for him to throw for an NCAA record 19,217 yards during four seasons in Conference USA.

“I’m not gonna say anything against the guys I was playing against. College football is tough,” Keenum said. “Across the NFL, I’m (still) playing against guys that I played against (at Houston).”

Only five of the top-15 seasons came from quarterbacks in a Power 5 conference – and all five came from Texas Tech quarterbacks.

B.J. Symons threw for more than any of them with 5,833 yards in 2003.

Gordon and Leach both said they see parallels between Symons and Washington State’s senior quarterback.

“Both of them, the ball comes off their hand quickly,” Leach told reporters on Monday. “Both early in their careers were kinda fearless and had to get reined in. Once they were reined in, they were a lot more effective. They were fearless to the point where they thought anything was possible, and it could end up reckless.”

Symons threw 22 interceptions that year. Gordon, through 11 games, has 14.

But, Leach said, when they got precise, they became sharp, quick and explosive.

“(Gordon and Symons are) both confident guys, which I think is one of the most important assets of a quarterback,” Leach said.

Like Gordon, Symons didn’t become his team’s starting quarterback until his senior season. But when he got his chance, it clicked. Symons threw 52 touchdowns that year, leading the Red Raiders to an 8-5 record, which is the best record Washington State could achieve this year, were it to win the Apple Cup on Friday and then a bowl game later in December.

Through 11 games that year Symons had 5,106 yards. At the time he was just the fourth quarterback to reach 5,000.

In Game 12, No. 1 Oklahoma held him to 230 yards passing on 31 of 53 attempts. He threw five interceptions in a 56-25 loss. Five weeks later in the Houston Bowl, he completed 41 of 53 attempts for 497 yards and four touchdowns, and Texas Tech beat Navy 38-14.

Gordon needs 914 yards to pass Symons, but with just 269 more he would pass Ty Detmer for sixth place on the list.

The bar is raised

The 1990 season was historic for quarterbacks. BYU’s Detmer and Houston’s David Klingler became the first quarterbacks to throw for more than 5,000 yards. The previous record was held by Houston’s Andre Ware, who finished with 4,699 yards four years earlier in 1986.

Detmer got there first: On Dec. 1, 1990, he threw for 318 yards in a 59-28 loss at Hawaii, getting him to 5,068 on the season.

One day later, though, Klingler passed him in record-breaking fashion: Klingler threw for 716 yards that day against Arizona State – a record that held until WSU’s Connor Halliday broke it in 2014 with 734 yards against Cal – to finish with 5,140. But after just 11 games Houston’s season was over, ineligible for the postseason that year due to recruiting violations.

Klingler held the mark for 27 days until Detmer eked out 121 yards in the 1990 Holiday Bowl. It got him to 5,188, a record that stood until Symons passed him in 2003.

The BYU quarterback won the Heisman Trophy that year, the only one of the 12 quarterbacks to earn that distinction.

Detmer’s legacy is connected to Leach, too: LaVell Edwards, BYU’s coach from 1972 to 2000, ran an offense that inspired the Air Raid’s founder, Hal Mumme, who helped implement the Air Raid with Leach in the late 1980s. Mumme said last summer he took “a lot of BYU and a little of the run-and-shoot and put it all together” in designing the Air Raid.

Like Keenum, Detmer dismissed the idea that the system makes the quarterback, or that anyone can run it and rack up such yardage totals.

“There was a time where BYU went through a stretch before I got there where guys were replacing each other,” Detmer said, “and you’ve seen the same thing at Texas Tech or Washington State, where they’re not as successful because the guy pulling the trigger can’t really perform in the system. So, it’s a combination of both (the system and the quarterback).”

When he is able to get the game on TV, Detmer makes a point of watching Gordon play.

“Obviously he does a good job, throws it accurately,” Detmer said. “In the (two or three) games I’ve seen, he competes, and (Washington State) is never out of it.”

To 5,000 and beyond

If the numbers from Gordon, Symons, Detmer, Moniz, Keenum – all of those on the list – are products of a system that prefers to pass, then it is a system the NFL seems ready to embrace.

Kingsbury now coaches the Arizona Cardinals. Pat Mahomes (5,052 yards in 2016) was coached by Kingsbury at Texas Tech and earned NFL MVP honors a season ago. Keenum has started 61 NFL games, though he was benched recently in favor of rookie Dwayne Haskins.

And Minshew, after throwing for 4,779 yards in one season at Washington State, has started eight games as a rookie for the Jacksonville Jaguars this season.

At the game’s highest level, throwing the ball has never been more popular. Players who have thrown as much as Air Raid quarterbacks have an advantage, Keenum said.

“The experience of being able to step back in a pocket that might not be very clean,” Keenum said, “I think that translates to a guy (who has done) that 50 times a game, more than a guy who’s (done) it 18.

“Look at NFL games. Most of the time they come down to one possession, and a third down here or there, where a guy has to take a shotgun snap, drop back, navigate a rush, when a team knows they’re gonna pass.”

At Gordon’s current pace of 53.1 attempts per game, he would finish the year with 691 attempts, sixth-most all time for a single season. Four of the five quarterbacks ahead of that number, with the exception of Halliday (714 in 2003), threw for 5,000 yards that year.

If the Cougars ever reached the Pac-12 championship game, their quarterback would be looking at 14 games in a season, and at Gordon’s current rate of 447 yards per game, that would be enough for a 6,000-yard season.

Moniz, who threw for 5,040 in a 14-game campaign at Hawaii, figures it is only a matter of time until someone raises the ceiling – especially after hearing that Gordon threw the ball 70 times last week.

“I definitely think 6,000 is near,” he said. “If you’re throwing 70 (times) a game, oh my gosh. That’s gotta be so fun.

“That would be crazy to get to 6,000. Now that’s a club.”

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