Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Day 37° Partly Cloudy
Sports

Peyton Bender gives Cougars options as assertive, strong-armed quarterback

Washington State head coach Mike Leach, left, talks with quarterback Peyton Bender during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Pasadena, Calif. Bender will start the Apple Cup in place of injured starting QB Luke Falk. (Mark Terrill / Associated Press)
Washington State head coach Mike Leach, left, talks with quarterback Peyton Bender during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Pasadena, Calif. Bender will start the Apple Cup in place of injured starting QB Luke Falk. (Mark Terrill / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Before Peyton Bender’s maternal grandmother died, she made sure to see him throw his first college touchdown pass.

Kathy Bronnum battled cancer for two years before returning home two weeks ago to spend her last days with her family. She was peaceful, and spent most of her time asleep.

But she woke up in the middle of the second quarter of Washington State’s game at UCLA. She made her way to the TV about 10 minutes before Bender entered the game at quarterback in place of Luke Falk, who had been taken to the locker room after suffering a head injury.

Bronnum saw her grandson, clearly nervous playing against a fierce Bruins defense, short-hop his first throw and miss his next two. Then she saw him calm himself and throw a dime – a perfectly lofted fade pass to Dom Williams in the end zone, a touchdown that would prove critical to WSU’s eventual 31-27 victory.

“He throws that touchdown pass and she throws her hands up into the air and starts crying, and then went back to sleep,” said Mike Bender, Peyton’s father, who videotaped Bronnum’s celebration on his phone and sent it to Bender after the game.

Three days later, Bronnum died.

“Poor Peyton was having a tough time with it,” Mike Bender said. “But he couldn’t come home because of the situation.”

The situation was that Peyton Bender had a game on Saturday night, the same day as his grandmother’s funeral.

In that game against Colorado, Falk was injured again, early in the third quarter, and Bender saw his most extensive game action. The redshirt freshman played well against the Pac-12’s No. 2 passing defense, completing 13 of 22 passes for 133 yards, one touchdown and an interception.

That game against the Buffaloes provided a perfect snapshot of the difference between the quarterbacks. Falk, the safer and more accurate quarterback, completed 77 percent of his passes to Bender’s 59 percent and did not turn the ball over.

But Bender, who has a stronger arm and is more assertive with his passes, averaged 10.3 yards per completion, compared with Falk’s 7.4.

“He had a very impressive first drive,” WSU head coach Mike Leach said. “I thought he moved the ball well.”

The fact that Bender has some physical gifts and talents that are greater than Falk’s is why the Cougars had a starting quarterback competition up until the final days of their preseason camp in August.

Falk always had the advantage, thanks to his starting experience last season once Connor Halliday broke his ankle against USC. Falk had more first-team reps during camp, and held onto the starting job.

“You’ve got to understand, in summer camp, the battle between those two was neck and neck in camp,” linebacker Jeremiah Allison said. “So the rope doesn’t fall off that much.”

But Bender played well enough to make it a contest. Then he had to deal with being the backup.

“He was disappointed, because he thought he was going to win the job,” Mike Bender said. “But I’ve got to be honest with you, he’s had a pretty good attitude. He accepted the role and he’s all about it. I’m ready to go and it happened. I was surprised at how good his attitude’s actually been. He thought he did enough in camp to win the job. That’s just what he felt.”

Bender got his opportunity to be a hero early on, in the team’s first game, when Falk was injured on the team’s final drive against Portland State. Bender completed an 18-yard pass to Williams to keep the Cougars’ hopes intact.

His next pass was intercepted, ending the game and putting Bender in a funk for a couple of weeks after. Mike Bender, who watches his son’s practice film occasionally, said he could see a difference.

“The ball just didn’t come off his hand right, so I think maybe he was depressed,” Mike Bender said. “I think he felt like he lost that game for the team.”

But Bender’s generally calm and stoic demeanor won out, and he began to look like his old self in practice. He’s filled in capably for Falk twice now, and if Falk cannot play in Friday’s Apple Cup it will be up to Bender to lead the team.

While Falk has put up superlative numbers – before his injury, Leach lobbied for him as a Heisman candidate – Bender possesses skills that Falk does not. So if Falk cannot go on Friday, the drop-off between starter and backup might not be as big as one might assume.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

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.

Active Person

Subscribe to the sports newsletter

Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.