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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gardner Minshew takes the highs with the lows of first NFL start

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, left, has words of encouragement for Jacksonville Jaguars rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew following the Texans’ 13-12 victory on Sunday in Houston. (David J. Phillip / AP)

HOUSTON – Surrounded by a semicircle of his relatives and friends, Gardner Minshew sat back against a folding chair on the lower concourse of NRG Stadium and replayed the events that led to a gutting 13-12 loss for the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday afternoon against the Houston Texans.

Every few minutes, between photos and chit-chat with the small group that road-tripped from Mississippi to Texas for Minshew’s first NFL start, the quarterback would let out a quiet groan, place both hands over his head, and stare off into the concrete hallway beyond the roped-off area where Jaguar players were able to mingle with friends and family before loading onto the team bus.

A few things have changed for Minshew since he took his last snap at Washington State. But, while five months as a pro quarterback have inflated the dollar figure in his bank account, and wiped out any last bits of anonymity the quarterback was enjoying, Minshew’s held on to the qualities that endeared him to WSU fans during the Cougars’ record-breaking 2018 season.

In a postgame press conference, staged in a converted storage area across the hall from Jacksonville’s locker room, Minshew was asked to evaluate his play after completing 23 of 33 passes for 213 yards, tossing a late touchdown pass and legging out a key 18-yard run on fourth-and-10 that kept the visiting team alive at NRG Stadium until running back Leonard Fournette was stopped on a two-point conversion, denying the Jaguars what would’ve been an improbable come-from-behind win.

“Well, not good because we lost,” said Minshew, wearing an artful headband to contain his feathery brown hair. “We lost and that’s the moral of the story. The silver lining is we had some things we can build on, some things if we clean up, we can be a really, really good team. So that’s very, very encouraging.”

Minshew’s competitive fire hasn’t been extinguished, and the signature mustache that elevated his fame to unforeseen levels last year has already survived five months of Duval County humidity. Last week, the former Cougar signal-caller didn’t flinch when he had to replace Nick Foles on a whim as the Jaguars’ franchise starter went down with a bad collarbone injury.

Minshew recalled processing the incident in real time: “As soon as that happened, I was like, ‘Dang, he’s out,’ ” he said. “And I was like, ‘Dang, that means I’m in.’ ”

He played admirably in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, completing 22 of 25 passes – including his first 13 throws – for 275 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, then learned afterward he’d be Jacksonville’s starter until further notice, with Foles out until November at the earliest.

Minshew says his success is a tribute to his preparation, acknowledging “No doubt, you’ve got to be ready,” he said, “because you know what, if I didn’t go out and play well last week, then I might not have this opportunity this week. … I may only get it once, especially being a late-round guy, you’ve got to make sure you’re ready for it.”

Jacksonville’s newly-minted starter was under constant duress Sunday, playing behind an offensive line that committed a handful of false start and holding penalties, and one that failed to protect the rookie quarterback as Houston’s elite pass-rushers, led by J.J. Watt and Whittney Mercilus, applied constant pressure.

Flags negated much of what Minshew accomplished in his first start, but the quarterback owned up for his own mistakes, too. The most pivotal was a fumble that gave Houston the ball in Jacksonville territory, leading directly to the Texans’ only touchdown. He fumbled two other times, but the Jaguars recovered both.

Asked which portions of the game he’d like to have back, Minshew responded honestly: “The whole first three-and-a-half quarters.”

He added: “We did some good things, we’d get a penalty, did some good things, I’d get sacked. I fumbled too much, missed a couple balls, so there’s room to grow but we also see the potential of what we could be out there. So that’s exciting.”

Minshew, ever the self-critic, was much harder on himself than any other member of the Jaguars organization Sunday.

“He doesn’t play like a rookie,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “There’s some things he’ll improve on as he works his way. … That last drive, you could see the poise that kid has to be able to go down the field and score. Like I’ve told you guys before, he’s not a guy that gets rattled, he looked fine on the sideline, he understands what we’re trying to get accomplished and what we want to do. So I couldn’t be happier with him.”

Offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor offered a similar message: “Gardner’s a great guy, a great leader for us. He goes hard for us and he does his job and does it 1,000 miles-per-hour. So we’re behind him 100 percent. We love Gardner.”

Watt, quarterback Deshaun Watson and other notable Texans shook Minshew’s hand afterward and provided words of encouragement.

“After the game, they were all very positive,” he said. “Just congratulating me, saying I played well, played hard, keep it up and said they were impressed with the composure I had. So it means a whole lot coming from guys like that.”