PULLMAN – Peyton Bender threw six touchdown passes during Saturday’s scrimmage, making Washington State’s quarterback situation ever murkier.
Mike Leach engendered a competition at the start of spring practice by saying Bender and Luke Falk would be given equal repetitions at quarterback and either could realistically win the starting job next season.
Leach had also heaped praise on Falk for his three starts last season and declared after the Apple Cup that Falk was the starter going forward. It’s difficult to say whether the coach actually considered Bender, a freshman, capable of unseating the sophomore or was simply trying to stave off spring complacency in his new Air Raid captain by manufacturing a challenger.
“Competition’s always great,” Falk said. “The better he plays then, hopefully, the better I play. It’s good to see him develop because it’s helping our team and the better he does, the better the team is.”
But Bender is playing to win the job, not to make Falk better. His performance was the latest in a string of three or four practices in which he’s looked just as capable of taking over next season.
“I’m coming in every day trying to outplay (Falk),” Bender said. “It’s a competition, so the best guy’s going to win the job. Unfortunately, it’s only going to be one guy.”
What makes Leach’s choice especially interesting is that the two don’t just have different strengths, but that each are legitimately better than the other in different areas. Falk has the better command of the offense and the huddle – he’s more likely to make the correct read and less likely to make a risky turnover.
He is also a better athlete, who can also stress a defense by running with the ball – Falk has run for a touchdown in both of WSU’s spring scrimmages, a skill that Bender has yet to show.
But the redshirt freshman from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is a more natural passer and forces the defense to stick to every receiver because of his ability to throw accurately on the run, a byproduct of his advanced footwork.
What’s happened lately is that Bender has caught up in the mental side of the game and is reacting quicker, while maintaining his advantage as a thrower. This was evident during a 22-yard touchdown pass to Gabe Marks in which a defender jumped offside. Recognizing that he had a free play, Bender quickly lofted a pass to his best scoring option, deftly placing the ball away from defenders.
But he showed his shortcomings on the next play, locking his eyes on Robert Lewis and throwing off his back foot, giving cornerback Marcellus Pippins an easy interception.
The caveat to Bender’s gaudy statistics is that Falk, apparently still in pole position, spends more time working against the starting defense.
While Bender went 21 of 28 on Saturday for 266 yards and Falk was 25 of 35 for 197 yards and two touchdowns, Falk faced the starting defense in three of his four series, while Bender faced the backups all but once.
While Falk also gets to work with the starting offense, WSU’s depth at receiver and youth in the secondary seem to give Bender a clear advantage and that changes how they’re graded.
“Right now their numbers are really close,” Leach said. “Falk’s slightly better. I don’t know how it came out today.”
Falk has shown he can do it in games, too, something that will not be easily overlooked. If everything else is equal, the memory of Falk throwing five touchdowns at Oregon State in his first career start could tip the scales in his direction.
Leach added that he doesn’t expect to name a starter until the middle of fall camp.
Until then, Bender will just keep pushing Falk, unless of course he passes him.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.