Washington State quarterback Peyton Bender lived so close to Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale that he could hear the school bell ring from his bathroom.
“Some days I’d be brushing my teeth when I heard it,” said Bender, the only player from Broward County or Miami-Dade County on the Washington State squad (8-4) that will meet Miami (8-4) in the Sun Bowl on Saturday. “Then I knew I had to get out of there fast.’’
Better yet, Bender lived so close to the Gibbons’ football field that he’d walk through a gate in the fence that separated his backyard from the school and reach the 35-yard line in less than 10 seconds. Very convenient for players who would dash straight into the Bender pool after workouts — and for teammates’ families who would watch Gibbons’ games while partying atop a giant, elevated wooden deck that Bender’s dad built next to the fence.
“It’s legendary, trust me,” said Peyton’s father, Mike, who named his son after Peyton Manning because he admired the quarterback and thought he had “a really cool” name.
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Bender is backup to the nation’s No. 1 passer, Luke Falk, who averages 387.8 yards a game in coach Mike Leach’s pass-happy “Air-Raid” offense. But Bender, a redshirt freshman, has been anything but a nonfactor in the Cougars’ offense.
Bender started Washington State’s last game Nov. 27 at Washington — a 45-10 Huskies romp — while Falk was sidelined with a concussion. Now, as Bender prepares for the Hurricanes should Falk struggle Saturday, he plays for a school 3,057 miles from home.
“I’m jealous of all those South Floridians right now,” the redshirt freshman, 19, told the Miami Herald by phone last week. “It’s probably around 25 degrees here, and we got a few inches of snow last night.
“But I love everything about Washington State. I’m having a great time out here.”
Bender, a Class 5A honorable mention All-State quarterback in high school, threw for 2,184 yards as a senior, with 28 touchdowns and six interceptions in 10 games. In this, his first year on the college field, he has played in five games — sparingly against Portland State, Oregon State and UCLA, and substantially the past two games against Colorado and in the regular-season finale.
His first career touchdown was on a fade route to Dom Williams in a 31-27 victory Nov. 14 at then-No. 18 UCLA. Bender entered the Colorado game in the third quarter the next week when Falk, who has 4,266 passing yards and 36 touchdowns to eight interceptions, sustained the concussion after a hard hit. Bender completed 13 of 22 passes for 133 yards, one touchdown and an interception to help lead the Cougars to a 27-3 victory.
The only other South Floridian on the WSU roster is freshman receiver Tavares Martin Jr., out of Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer.
“Peyton is a very quick, flashy arm,” Leach said after the Colorado game. “The ball explodes off his hand. … He moved the ball pretty well. Just got kind of reckless when the ball fluttered.”
Being reckless is the knock on Bender, who got interest from several FBS schools out of high school, but no offers other than from Leach.
“The unfortunate thing is a lot of schools in Florida bypassed Peyton for whatever reason,” said Cardinal Gibbons offensive coordinator Matt DuBuc, who knows Leach from coaching connections and told Leach about Peyton. “His numbers in high school were very good, and he has a lightning-quick release. He fits what Leach does offensively, getting it out quickly with great arm strength.
“He’s a fabulous kid.”
This season, Bender has thrown four interceptions to his three touchdowns. Two of the picks were returned for touchdowns in the second half by Washington. Bender threw for 288 yards, including 192 in the first half. But he was sacked three times and wasn’t helped by seven Cougar turnovers.
“I thought I was ready, but unfortunately it didn’t turn out the way we wanted,” Bender said. “We had a lot of opportunities early and squandered them with turnovers and unfinished drives. I need to work on being more mentally disciplined and not forcing my throws.”
Bender’s family, which includes older brother Chase, a former Gibbons quarterback who just finished his final season as a receiver for Colgate, is originally from the Atlanta area — all “huge Georgia Dawg fans,’’ said Mike Bender, a Georgia grad. They moved from the suburbs of Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale the summer before Peyton’s freshman year at Cardinal Gibbons.
Recently hired UM coach Mark Richt — the Georgia coach for 15 years — won’t be attending the bowl game.
“That was my dream school,’’ Peyton Bender said. “Mark Richt is just a great coach.’’
Bender played with UM freshman defensive lineman R.J. McIntosh in high school and with some other Canes during his days with the South Florida Express seven-on-seven team. He said he started watching the Canes when he moved to Florida.
“We were excited to find out we were playing Miami,” Bender said. “I went to a couple of their games when I was in high school. It’s going to be an awesome bowl game.”