Top-10 best quarterbacks in WSU history: 1-5

Second part of best of best is here with a list of players who sit atop school record books

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ABIGAIL LINNENKOHL | DAILY EVERGREEN FILE

Cougar legend Gardner Minshew II is placed fourth on all-time quarterbacks list.

AARIK LONG, Evergreen sports editor

Last week, we started our top 10 WSU quarterback’s countdown. This week, as we approach the Crimson and Gray game with all of its quarterback talk, we return to look at the top five players at the position in program history.

  1. Connor Halliday, 2011-14

Halliday, like some others in the top ten, benefited from the system he played in. However, it takes talent to capitalize on that system to put up the massive numbers that Halliday did.

During his freshman season, Halliday did not see the field much, making just four appearances and one start. However, in that one start, which was a game against Arizona State, Halliday set both the Pac-12 and the WSU records for passing yards and touchdowns by a freshman. That record would be broken a few years later, but Halliday came out of the gates hot to start his career on the Palouse.

Season two saw similar performances for Halliday. That year, he got on the field nine times, including five starts for the Cougars. It was a solid season for Halliday, but things really kicked up a notch in 2013.

The junior season for the quarterback was when he finally got a full season as the starter under center. That season, Halliday helped lead the Cougars to the New Mexico Bowl, ending a nine-year streak where WSU did not have any postseason play.

He set the WSU record for passing attempts, completions and yards. He still holds the mark for attempts to this day, while falling back to third in the other two. Additionally, he tied Ryan Leaf for the most passing touchdowns in school history, although the pair are now tied for fifth.

In a game against the Oregon Ducks, Halliday set the all-time FBS record for attempts in a game, a record that still stands at 89. Interestingly enough, this means that both the FBS and NFL single-game passing attempts records are held by Cougs, with Drew Bledsoe holding the NFL mark.

Halliday elected to stay for his senior season, and he once again put up impressive numbers. In a game against the Cal Golden Bears, Halliday became the first FBS player to pass for 700 yards in a game. His 734 still stands atop the leaderboard, with Patrick Mahomes tying the mark in 2016.

The quarterback’s efficiency greatly improved that season as well. He threw fewer passes at a much higher completion percentage. The overall numbers did not match his junior year, but that is because he missed the final three games after breaking his leg against USC.

Halliday had sparks of brilliance at WSU. He holds five of the top ten slots on the school’s single-game passing attempts and passing yards leaderboard, as well as three of the top ten on the touchdown list. His consistency was not entirely there, shown by seven games completing less than half of his passes and five games with at least three interceptions thrown.

As storied as his college career was, his pro career was a bit different. Halliday went undrafted but was signed by Washington. Then, the day before rookie mini-camp began, Halliday decided to retire from the NFL. Less than five months later, he signed with a CFL team’s practice squad. He bounced around some Canadian practice squads for a couple of years before officially retiring from pro football in 2017 after tearing his rotator cuff.

  1. Gardner Minshew II, 2018

Minshew-mania was and is still a big deal in Pullman. Fake-mustache clad fans have fallen in love with the current Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback.

Minshew began his career at the community college level, leading Northwest Mississippi Community College to the NJCAA National Championship.

Following his time in his home state, the quarterback ventured out to the east coast, going to the East Carolina Pirates for two seasons. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the school in December 2017, after just two seasons in Greenville, North Carolina.

Following that second season, Minshew made the 2,700-mile journey to Pullman as a graduate transfer.

That season in Pullman was a spectacular one for Minshew and the Cougars. As a team, WSU went 11-2, won a bowl game for the first time in three years, finished in the AP Top 10 and were co-Pac-12 North champions.

As for personal accolades, Minshew led the FBS in passing attempts and completions, was second in passing yards and completion percentage, and fourth in passing touchdowns. Minshew holds the second-most passing completions, yards and touchdowns in a single WSU season, as well as the third-highest completion percentage.

That season, Minshew became the fifth Cougar to win the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year award. He was also named the Johnny United Golden Arm Award recipient, which is given to the best senior or fifth-year quarterback in the nation.

Minshew even made a run at the Heisman, finishing fifth and becoming just the ninth Cougar to finish within the top 10 of votes and only the second inside of the top five, with Leaf’s third-place finish being the best for a WSU player.

Minshew has been a lightning rod of excitement even after leaving for the NFL. The Jacksonville Jaguars selected the quarterback in the sixth round of the 2019 draft. In his debut, Minshew completed 88 percent of his passes, the most ever by a player making their debut and the best-ever in Jaguars history.

Since then, he has been an acceptable quarterback for Jacksonville. He occasionally leads a comeback and occasionally makes a mistake, but, for the most part, is a rather consistent contributor. Last season, he suffered an injury that sidelined his season.

Unfortunately for Minshew, it appears that his time as a starter may be ending in Jacksonville, as the Jaguars are expected to take the once-in-a-generation talent Trevor Lawrence in the upcoming draft.

  1. Luke Falk, 2014-17

Falk came to Pullman in 2013 after flipping his commitment from Cornell University to WSU. He spent that first season redshirted.

During his freshman season in 2014, Falk was Halliday’s back up. When Halliday suffered that leg injury against USC, Falk stepped up to become the starter.

His sophomore season of 2015 was where Falk really exploded onto the scene. The quarterback finished the year leading the FBS in passing completions and attempts, came second in passing completion percentage, fifth in passing yards and fourth in passing touchdowns.

That year, WSU finished their season with a record of 9-4, the most wins in 12 seasons. They also walked away with a win in the Sun Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes. This was the first bowl game the Cougars had won since the 2003 Holiday Bowl.

In his final two seasons, WSU finished with a combined record of 17-9 but lost their two bowl games.

Although he was replaced by Tyler Hilinski prior to the 2017 Holiday Bowl due to injury, Falk became the first WSU quarterback to lead the Cougars to three consecutive bowl games.

Currently, Falk still sits at the top of the Pac-12 leaderboard for career pass completions, pass attempts, completion percentage (minimum 875 attempts), passing yards, passing touchdowns and total offensive yards.

Additionally, he sits pretty high up on many of the FBS career leaderboards including completions (second), attempts (fourth), passing yards (eighth) and passing touchdowns (tenth).

In 2015, Falk earned All-Pac-12 First-Team honors with second-team honors coming in 2016. In 2017, he won the Burlsworth Trophy as the most outstanding FBS player who started their collegiate career as a walk-on.

After college, Falk was selected in the sixth round by the Tennessee Titans. Falk bounced around a few teams in the NFL but ultimately finished that phase of his career with just two starts and three appearances. Most recently, Falk has signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders ahead of the 2021 season.

  1. Jack Thompson, 1975-78

The Throwin’ Samoan is a legend among the halls of WSU. Playing eleven games a season for all four years on the Palouse, racking up the fifth-most passing yards and sixth-most passing touchdowns in school history.

Thompson was never really able to lead the Cougars to any significant success, winning just three games on three different occasions. The one outlier was the 1977 season where WSU went 7-4.

However, his personal numbers were absurd. At the time of his final game in the crimson and gray, Thompson led the NCAA in career passing yards and held Pac-10 records in passing attempts, passes completed and passing touchdowns. All of those records have been broken as the college game leans more and more on passing, but he held all of those at one point.

Thompson accumulated three all-conference honors, as well as an All-American first team, second team and honorable mention selection. In his final season in 1978, Thompson finished ninth in Heisman voting.

Like many others on this list, Thompson’s pro career was not nearly as impressive as his college career was, throwing just 33 touchdowns compared to 45 interceptions in his six-year NFL career.

  1. Ryan Leaf, 1995-97

In 1998, Leaf was selected No. 2 overall, making him the second-highest selected WSU player of all-time. In his final season, Leaf led the Cougars to the 1997 Pac-10 Championship, their first Pac-10 title and just the third conference championship in program history. That season, Leaf also finished third in Heisman voting, behind two Pro Football Hall of Famers.

This win meant the Cougars got to compete in the Rose Bowl for the first time since the game following the 1930 season. Despite the loss to the Michigan Wolverines, the season was a historic one for WSU, who finished the season ranked No. 9 in the AP Poll, the first of five times in program history they have finished in the Top 10.

That 1997 season left Leaf sitting atop the team’s passing yards and passing touchdowns list for a single season. Now, he sits at sixth and fifth respectively, but that is still widely impressive when you compare the system he played in to what most of the other guys on that list played in.

Leaf racked in the honors that season, being named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-American.

After deciding to skip his senior season and go to the NFL, Leaf was considered one of the top prospects in the class. He would eventually be drafted No. 2 overall, behind Peyton Manning. His NFL career was less than ideal and is widely pointed to as being one of the biggest busts in NFL history.

Following his retirement from the NFL in 2002, Leaf went through some legal trouble, including issues related to substance abuse. However, in the years since, he has overcome those problems and has been an advocate for those who are dealing with issues of mental health and substance abuse. He is also an analyst on both radio and TV for SiriusXM and ESPN.