Gardner Minshew has made the most of his one season as the Cougars' starting quarterback
There's no question that Washington State exceeded preseason expectations by a mile in 2018. The Cougars entered the season with major holes to fill at quarterback and on the defensive line and were expected to be in a battle just to qualify for a bowl game. It didn't play out that way at all.
Buoyed by the outstanding play of graduate transfer Gardner Minshew at quarterback and an imposing defense, Washington State locked up its first 10-win season since winning 10 games three straight years from 2001-03. The Cougars were explosive as ever on offense and had little trouble shutting down opposing offenses at critical junctures.
Another Apple Cup loss denied Washington State a shot at earning a Pac-12 title. Still, the Cougars will head to the Alamo Bowl to face Iowa State and have proven that, as long as Mike Leach remains the head coach in Pullman, they will be a consistent factor in the Pac-12 North.
Offensive MVP: Gardner Minshew, QB
One major reason why Washington State enjoyed so much success is Minshew. The senior joined the program as a transfer from East Carolina and ran the Air Raid offense like a seasoned pro. He led the nation during the regular season with 373.1 passing yards per game. Minshew ranks second among FBS players in total passing yards (4,477) and third in completion percentage (70.6) this season. He ultimately finished fifth in Heisman Trophy voting.
Defensive MVP: Peyton Pelluer, LB
Getting an extra year of eligibility wasn't just good fortune for Pelluer. It turned out to be a boon for the entire Washington State defense. Pelluer's leadership and playmaking instincts made the Cougars' front seven a fearsome bunch. He ended the regular season as the team leader in tackles (86) and ranked second in tackles for a loss (9.0). Pelluer also tallied 3.5 sacks, three pass breakups, four quarterback hurries and a forced fumble during the regular season.
Best Freshman: Willie Taylor III, DL
Taylor has a bright future on the Washington State defensive line after a strong debut season. In 12 regular season games, Taylor racked up 28 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss, and 4.0 sacks. He formed an effective tandem with sophomore Will Rodgers III in creating pressure up front. That duo is going to keep the Cougars' defense going strong for at least another season or two.
Best Play of the Season: Easop Winston's 89-Yard TD vs. Utah
Washington State shredded one of the nation's top defenses for 445 passing yards. None of those yards were bigger than what happened with 4:14 left. Winston hauled in a back-shoulder grab, shed a defender and streaked down the sideline for the Cougars' only second-half points. It turned out to be a game-winning touchdown against the eventual Pac-12 South champion.
Best Performance by a Player: Gardner Minshew vs. Stanford
Minshew had games where he totaled more yardage or touchdown passes than he did against the Cardinal. None of those efforts matched the sheer efficiency he showed in a 41-38 win over Stanford and virtually every one of those completed passes proved crucial. Minshew completed 19 straight passes to open the second half and eventually finished with 438 yards and three touchdowns while completing 80 percent of his attempts.
Best Game (Team Performance): 69-28 Blowout of Arizona
Facing Arizona in Pullman seems to bring out the best in Washington State's offense. The Cougars hung 69 points on the Wildcats for the second time in three seasons after Gardner Minshew threw a school-record seven touchdown passes. Washington State scored touchdowns on eight of the team's first nine drives and ultimately totaled a season-high 605 yards. The Cougars averaged a robust 7.7 yards per play against Arizona.
Defining Moment: Tago Targeting Call Overturned
On the final play of the third quarter in a 39-36 loss to USC, Logan Tago delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit on Trojans quarterback JT Daniels. The play drew a roughing the passer penalty and a targeting penalty. The call was overturned on review after improper interference from Pac-12 general counsel Woodie Dixon. It cast a shadow over the game and created further questions about third-party meddling in Pac-12 officiating in other league games.
Biggest Surprise: Improved Offensive Line Play
Pass protection was not a strength for Washington State last season. The Cougars surrendered 44 sacks, the most of any Power 5 school in the nation. This year, with senior left tackle Andre Dillard anchoring the offensive line, Washington State turned it around in dramatic fashion. The Cougars yielded just 11 sacks during the regular season, the fewest of any Pac-12 team and the seventh-fewest nationally.
Biggest Disappointment: Apple Cup Futility
Washington State once again fell flat against in-state rival Washington with a divisional title and a berth to the Pac-12 Championship Game on the line. The Cougars couldn't overcome either a snowstorm or the Huskies' powerful defense in a 28-15 loss. Washington State generated a season-low 237 yards and averaged a season-low 4.02 yards per play. Defensively, the Cougars forced three turnovers but their offense also coughed it up three times.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Gardner Minshew, QB
Minshew turned what was expected to be a rebuilding season into Mike Leach's most successful campaign to date at Washington State. It is just the second 10-win season in Leach's head coaching career. Minshew stepped in after the Cougars lost their top two quarterbacks from the previous season and had both the skills and field vision to thrive in the Air Raid. His productive efficiency will be tough to duplicate.
Player to Watch in 2019: Cammon Cooper, QB
Cooper entered the football program this season as a highly touted 4-star quarterback out of Lehi (Utah) High School. Until Gardner Minshew joined Washington State as a graduate transfer, Cooper looked to have the inside track to win the starting quarterback job. Cooper likely becomes the favorite again in 2019. His skill set combined with his youth gives Mike Leach a quarterback who could potentially have a Luke Falk-level impact over the next four years.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Who Will Emerge as the Next Starting Quarterback?
Choosing a new captain to steer the Air Raid ship will be a pressing concern for Leach again this offseason. Gardner Minshew is a senior and, even with all of Washington State's success this season, his backups haven't gotten much playing time. Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon will both be seniors next year, but they have combined for 80 yards, one touchdown and an interception on 10-of-14 passing. Cammon Cooper figures to be the favorite to succeed Minshew next season unless another transfer joins the program. The biggest question facing all of them is if they can manage the same level of consistency and production as their predecessor.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.