What did the future Washington State quarterback do on his first play from scrimmage? He connected with receiver George Rushing on an 80-yard touchdown strike.
It set the tone for what his high school coaches called a solid opening performance against Miami Belen Jesuit, a Class 8A program which played for a state championship in 2009 and is expected to win its district and make the playoffs for the 13th time in the last 15 years.
Bender (6-1, 180) threw three touchdown passes in all Friday and finished 11-of-20 passing for 228 yards with no interceptions He stepped aside with a 27-14 lead at the end of the third quarter to let the second team in. His teammates eventually blew the lead and lost 28-27. But for Bender it was the kind of start his coaches were expecting from the polished passer.
"He was good. First time out of the box, we missed a couple, had a couple drops but this is probably where we thought we would be," said Chiefs' offensive coordinator Matt Dubuc, who runs the same "Air Raid" offense Cougars coach Mike Leach does.
"Belen is a pretty good team. We won the game as far when our starters were in there. But I thought Peyton played well and is going to have an incredible year. He has a pretty good understanding of what we're trying to do."
STARTING WITH A BANG: Right out of the gate Friday Bender found pay dirt. Standing in the shotgun in a three-wide set, he immediately looked left and fired a perfect strike on a quick post to Rushing, a 6-foot, 180-pound Louisville commitment. Rushing broke a tackle 11 yards downfield and outran the rest of the Belen’s defense for the score.
"I just put it where George could catch it," Bender said. "We ran a quick post and I hit him where I was supposed to. He beat the safety and took it up the seam for a touchdown. He's a great playmaker. My goal is just to put it in the playmaker's hands."
ROUGH PATCH: After connecting with All-County selection Trevon Lee (offers from Cal, Nebraska, Stanford and others) for a 19-yard gain on his second pass, Bender went on a run of six consecutive incomplete passes.
Not all of it was his fault. After throwing a short pass behind Rushing that bounced off a defender's hands and was nearly intercepted, Bender tossed a short eight-yard pass to Rushing in the flat. He was wide open, but dropped it.
Gibbons wound up settling for a 38-yard field goal on the drive.
The drops, though, kept coming. There were four in all including another by Rushing when he was well behind the safety and would have easily scored. Lee had another pass later in the game bounce off his hands in the end zone, a play that would have resulted in a fourth touchdown and not a second field goal.
As tough as the drops were to swallow, Bender doesn’t point fingers at his teammates. "I just kind of tell the receivers to forget about it,” he said. “I'm not going to be perfect. I'm going to throw a bad ball. They're going to drop a ball. You just move onto the next play."
FRIDAY'S GAME WAS CONSIDERED AN EXHIBITION, WITH THE REAL START NEXT WEEK.
RECOVERING NICELY: Bender and Gibbons' offense certainly did that. Trailing 14-10 late in the first half, the Chiefs took over at their 29-yard line. Facing an heavy blitz, Bender got the offense going with a quick outlet pass to running back Deon McIntosh, who turned it up field for a 12-yard gain and a first down.
On his next pass, Bender looked off Belen’s safeties and found a tight end Paul Striber wide open over the middle for a 19-yard gain into Wolverines’ territory. After McIntosh exploded for a 30-yard run up the gut, Gibbons had a first-and-10 at the Belen 11. On first down, Bender was forced out of the pocket by pressure and wisely threw the ball out of bounds incomplete.
Two plays later, though, he stood in the pocket on a four-wide set, made the safeties and corners bite on a slant Lee was running and connected with wide open receiver CJ Maybin on a wheel route for an 11-yard scoring pass. The touchdown -- with 49 seconds left in the half -- put Gibbons ahead 17-14.
BLAZING START IN THE SECOND: The second half picked up where the first half ended for Bender. A quick outlet pass to Lee netted 13 yards, followed by a short dump off over the middle to running back Antone Hodge for another 10-yard pickup. Two plays later, Bender faked a handoff, and put the perfect touch on a 37-yard pass down the sideline to Rushing for his final score of the afternoon. The ball was perfectly placed just over the reach of the outstretched cornerback and right where Rushing wanted it.
"That one came out nice, felt smooth," Bender said of score, calling it his best pass of the day.
Head coach Mike Morrill agreed.
"Peyton made some great throws," Morrill said. "We had obviously a few drops out there. I think he would tell you he missed a couple too. But all in all, he was poised in the pocket, just what we expected."
What's next? The season opener against Davie Western next Friday.
By then, receiver Christian Blake, a Northern Illinois verbal commitment, is expected to be back after missing this week’s preseason game with an ankle sprain.
"Going into a regular season we have big expectations," Bender said. "We have a tough district. Hopefully we'll be in the playoffs at the end of the year."
Dubuc, the Chief’s offensive coordinator, said after Peyton spent the off-season concentrating on improving his footwork, he wants his star quarterback to remember one important lesson this season -- his job is to be a facilitator, not a hero.
"We're in a position right now where we've got playmakers everywhere and good backs," Dubuc said. "He's just got to be the conductor on the field. That's my goal for him."
THE STATS: Bender was 11-of-20 for 228 yards, 3 TDs and no INTs. Last season as a part-time starter he was 96-for-176 for 1,402 yards, 15 TDs and 6 INTs.
Cougfan.com will be covering each of Bender’s games the rest of this season.
Video Cut Up of Peyton Bender, Aug. 23 Game:
Here’s a look at the rest of Gibbons’ 2013 schedule:
> Fri. Aug. 30 - Western
> Fri. Sep. 6 - at Everglades
> Thu. Sep. 12 Cooper City
> Fri. Sep. 20 - at Boyd Anderson
> Fri. Sep. 27 - at Northeast
> Fri. Oct. 4 – Key West (district opener)
> Sat. Oct. 19 – at Miami Jackson (district game)
> Fri. Oct. 25 – Ely
> Fri. Nov. 1 – American Heritage (district finale)
> Fri. Nov. 8 - Coral Springs
The only other future Cougar in action Friday was also in Florida, though it was a preseason game. Future Cougar WR Keith Harrington and Northeast lost 34-19 to St. Petersburg. Harrington will have to shoulder a larger load as a senior - eight Northeast players recently transferred out of the program including their starting quarterback. Harrington this season will play running back as well as some QB and take snaps out of the wildcat formation.
The season openers for most Cougar commits, including those from California and Washington, take place next week. They include LB Greg Hoyd out of Vista Murrieta, ranked No. 2 in the state of California by USA Today; and CB Kevin Griffin from storied De La Salle High (ranked No. 1 in the state -- and No. 8 nationally -- by USA Today.)
Hoyd and Vista Murrieta face a daunting start -- their non-league schedule includes three teams ranked in the top 64 by USA Today. Their conference slate also features another two opponents in the top 59.