A freshman making his first college start, Washington State quarterback Peyton Bender was playing as well as could be expected Friday afternoon. Midway through the third quarter of the Apple Cup, Bender had his team within two touchdowns of Washington at Husky Stadium.
A few years ago, when football teams broke what used to be called “huddles” and lined up with two and sometimes even three backs behind the quarterback, a deficit such as the one WSU faced was considered substantial. But for the instant-offense Cougars — even with a quarterback making his debut — there ain’t no mountain high enough.
Then Bender threw a pass toward the right sideline, and when Huskies cornerback Sidney Jones broke in front of intended receiver Gabe Marks, the Apple Cup changed from a reasonably suspenseful game into another Black Friday blowout.
Jones clutched the ball in full stride at the UW 31-yard line, and as he headed the other away, his mind began racing as fast as his feet.
“I was like, wow, touchdown,” the sophomore said after the Huskies 45-10 victory. “Nobody was in front of me.”
Actually, there was one man between Jones and the end zone: the poor, unfortunate soul who threw the pass.
“Besides him,” continued Jones. “I just cut back a little bit.”
The cutback was a kind of hip swivel that caused Bender to lose his balance. As he lay sprawled on the turf, Jones tossed the ball in celebration of what soon became a 24-3 lead.
“Sidney’s return was the best thing that could have happened to us,” said Huskies safety Brian Clay. “He does that all the time in practice — it’s something we’re used to. It’s great we finally got a chance to see it in a game.
“We needed a big play on defense and he was right there to take it to the house. That gave us the spark to get more turnovers.”
Head coach Chris Petersen, on a daily basis, stresses the significance of making the ultimate big play to his defense.
“That’s our mentality,” he said. “It’s one of the things we talk about all the time: Score and get the ball back. I think they embodied that right there.”
The mentality was revealed in the first quarter, when Cougars receiver Keith Harrington lost a fumble after catching a pass. Instead of simply falling on the ball near midfield, the Huskies attempted a scoop and sprint that could have backfired had linebacker Azeem Victor not seized control at the WSU 41.
Bender finished the first half with solid passing numbers (24 of 34, 192 yards and no interceptions), and you got the sense he wasn’t overwhelmed by the challenge of replacing injured teammate Luke Falk — on national television, no less.
And after the defense forced a 10-play drive to stall on the Huskies’ first possession of the second half, the Cougars answered with a 30-yard Bender completion to Robert Lewis, followed by a 12-yard pass Kyrin Priester.
Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense was humming. A moment later, the Husky Stadium siren blared in recognition of Jones’ pick-six, and Bender suddenly transformed from a composed freshman quarterback to a blinded-by-the-lights freshman quarterback.
A Washington defense that began the afternoon with one returned interception for a touchdown ended up with two in the second half, thanks to Victor’s 27-yard score. That was preceded by Darren Gardenhire’s 28-yard touchdown return of a fumble recovery.
“I’ve been on both sides of flood-gate games,” said Leach. “Fortunately, I’ve been on the positive side more than the negative end. They are something that start gradually and then it’s a series of over corrections, like fish-tailing down a road.”
Clay, among the 15 Huskies honored on Senior Day, summed up the mismatch with the perspective of a veteran.
“They have a great offensive system,” he said of the Cougars. “But we have a great defense. I was always told defenses win championships and offenses win MVP awards.”
And once in a while, such as Friday afternoon, there’s an MVP like Sidney Jones, whose defensive play led to a fish-tailing.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org