Bender may get 1st start for No. 20 Cougars in Apple Cup
Now Bender may get the chance at his first college start on Friday when No. 20 Washington State (8-3, 6-2 Pac-12) faces rival Washington (5-6, 3-5) in the Apple Cup.
Bender has been forced into action in each of the last two games because starting quarterback Luke Falk was taken off the field. Falk was checked for a concussion against UCLA on Nov. 14 and cleared to return, but he was taken off the field on a backboard last Saturday in the third quarter against Colorado.
Leach has vehemently declined to provide an update on Falk's status, but indications are he suffered a concussion against the Buffaloes. The decision on who starts against the Huskies will come ''27 seconds'' before kickoff, Leach said Monday.
Considering how Falk was treated and removed from the stadium after his head slammed onto the cold turf, it's likely Bender will get the nod against the Huskies to try to get Washington State a ninth win.
''We play the best when we are going up-tempo, and we want to play fast,'' Leach said. ''We have been pushing for a better tempo in practice and I thought Bender did a good job of that. Peyton is a real heads-up player with a flashy arm and a quick release. The ball really explodes off his hand and is still accurate.''
While Falk has produced one of the best seasons by a quarterback in Pac-12 history, there isn't that much of a drop off to Bender, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There are a few areas where Bender's skills are superior to Falk's, including arm strength and the speed of his release. Falk's advantage is having more time and experience in Leach's Air Raid offense and running it this season with efficient precision.
And therein lies the rub with Bender. He doesn't have close to the same amount of experience as Falk and while his arm strength allows him to fit throws into tight spaces, he's also likely to make a few dangerous attempts. Two weeks ago against UCLA, Bender threw just five passes, but one was a perfect fade route to Dom Williams for a touchdown.
Last week against Colorado in more extensive action, Bender was 13 of 22 for 133 yards, one touchdown, one interception and another throw that should have been picked off.
Against UCLA ''my nerves were going a little bit but I thought that was a great experience for me,'' Bender said. ''I think it benefited me (against Colorado). I kind of knew what to expect and went in there and tried to run the offense the way it's supposed to be run.''
Bender and Falk were in an open competition for the starting quarterback job through the spring and into the beginning of fall camp.
Leach eventually went with Falk because of his experience at the end of last year and because he spent more time in the Cougars' offense. Falk made three starts at the end of his freshman season after an injury to starter Connor Halliday.
But Bender showed promise during spring practice and the Cougars have confidence in the freshman if he ends up starting against the Huskies.
''Peyton can really control a huddle. He is very composed and never seems too frantic,'' Williams said. ''I have seen him grow a lot throughout this season. He plays like we are at practice and that helps the offense stay composed.''