Swamp no match for future Cougar QB

MIRAMAR, Fla. – When assessing a high school quarterback and his next-level readiness, statistics only tell part of the story. Sure, Washington State recruit Peyton Bender's numbers looked gaudy Friday night when he led Cardinal Gibbons (2-0) to an easy 37-15 win over host Everglades.

Bender completed 20 of 32 passes for 304 yards and no interceptions. He passed for three touchdowns and ran for one – all on Gibbons' first four possessions of the game.

All of that was impressive, but perspective is needed, and it is simply this: Everglades is not nearly as good as some of the opponents Gibbons will face later in the season, such as American Heritage and Miami Jackson.

So rather than be wowed by numbers that were built largely on easy pitch-and-catch plays where tight coverage was lacking, it is more instructive to focus on the moments in which Bender was challenged.

One of those plays came in the first quarter, when Gibbons led 7-0 and faced a third-and-nine situation at the Everglades 19. Bender eluded a strong up-the-middle pass rush by sliding two feet to his left and whipping a pass near the goal line to George Rushing, who caught the ball in stride and scored.

"We had a crossing route and a dig coming in behind it," Bender said. "I felt pressure, so I just rolled out. George got open and made a good play.

"Pocket presence is something we practice every day, just working on feeling the pressure."

Rushing said he was originally set to run a "dig" route.

"But when I saw him scrabble," Rushing said, "I just tried to get in his (line of vision)."

Perhaps the only negative play for Bender Friday night was a sack he took on Gibbons' fifth and final offensive possession of the first half. There was 1:01 left when Gibbons got the ball at its own 24, and Bender was determined to put together a quick scoring drive.

"We had a down-field play called," said Bender, who lost eight yards on the play. "I went to throw it, and I tried to anticipate the route, but my receiver wasn't looking. So I held on to it and tried to roll out, but the (left) defensive end got me by my legs. He made a good play."

Gibbons quarterbacks coach John Chikerotis wasn't complaining at all about Bender's performance.

Chikerotis praised Bender's ability to handle a shoddy field – Everglades' nickname is the Gators, and they call their field "The Swamp," just like their University of Florida namesakes. And in this case, the field lived up to that "swamp" moniker, with a lot of muddy spots in which traction was difficult.

In addition, the wind -- which was not overly strong -- was difficult to gauge, according to Chikerotis, who also pointed out Bender's ability to cleanly field low snaps out of shotgun formations.

"Peyton was tremendous tonight," Chikerotis said. "Most of his incompletions were drops. Anytime you can put up numbers like that on a sloppy field and somewhat of a gusting wind … He adjusted to everything."

On the 19-yard touchdown pass to Rushing, Chikerotis was pleased with the way Bender "sidestepped (a pass-rusher) and put a nice touch on the ball, right over a defender. Peyton's getting better and better."

Asked if there was anything he didn't like about Bender's game, Chikerotis paused for a moment.

"Honestly, no," he said. "You have to expect a few incompletions.

"If you walked the field down on the other side, it was so disgustingly wet and muddy. The ball picks up that wet and mud, and it's not always easy to grip and throw.

"You have to transition between snap and throw, and that was probably the most impressive thing. He had one snap that rolled to him, and he fielded it like a shortstop picking up a hard ground ball."

Before his 19-yard TD pass to Rushing, Bender scored on a one-yard QB sneak. Bender later hit Rushing on a 38-yard scoring pass to make it 20-0.

"We had two crossing patterns going," Bender said when asked about the 38-yarder. "Normally, one of the crossers will pick a defender, and George popped wide open."

Bender's final scoring pass of the night came on a 63-yard strike to Trevon Lee, who blazed down the right sideline and awaited a lofted touch pass from his quarterback.

"I had a vertical route, and the safety bit," Lee said. "I don't know why he bit, but he bit. I just ran straight."

Bender said it was a play-action pass, which he believes influenced the defense.

"I think they saw that," Bender said, "and came up. It was wide open."

Bender had a huge first half, completing 15 of 23 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns, giving Gibbons a 34-0 lead.

That allowed him to coast through the third quarter, getting just a field goal on two drives. He then exited the game with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Gibbons' next game is Thursday night against Cooper City, a large school (Class 8A) which has made the playoffs two of the past three seasons, although it slipped to 5-5 last year.

This should be Class 5A Gibbons' toughest test so far this season, but the key members of the passing game remain confident.

"We can be explosive, and they haven't even seen all of it," Rushing said. "Our third piece, he's hurt, but he's coming back next week."

Rushing was referring to wide receiver Christian Blake, a 6-1 senior who has verbally committed to Northern Illinois University.

Blake joins 6-0 senior Rushing – a Louisville verbal – among Bender's already-committed receivers.

Meanwhile, Lee, a 5-11 senior, has offers from Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt, Cal and Nebraska.

"I'm real excited about our passing attack," Lee said.

And with Bender at the controls, why not?

Bender's game stats: 20-of-32 for 304 yards, 3 TDs, no INTs
Bender's season stats: 44-of-63 for 673 yards, 7 TDs, 1 INT

CARDINAL GIBBONS' SCHEDULE
  • Aug. 23 - at Belen (exhibition)
  • Aug. 30 - Western (W)
  • Sep. 6 - at Everglades (W)
  • Sep. 12 Cooper City
  • Sep. 20 - at Boyd Anderson
  • Sep. 27 - at Northeast
  • Oct. 4 – Key West (district opener)
  • Oct. 11 – bye
  • Oct. 19 – at Jackson (district)
  • Oct. 25 – Ely
  • Nov. 1 – American Heritage (district)
  • Nov. 8 - Coral Springs

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