LAWRENCE — He’s not “Sparky,” and even saying the new Kansas quarterback has a long, long way to go to fill those cleats would be an understatement.
But in killing a dubious KU streak in his Jayhawk debut — in front of the legendary quarterback who last matched that feat, no less — Peyton Bender proved to be a spark at signal caller the program hasn’t seen in nearly a decade.
Bender became the first KU quarterback since Todd Reesing in 2009 to throw for four touchdowns in a single game, leading the Jayhawks to a 38-16 victory over Southeast Missouri State on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
“He’s a guy that we thought was going to be a very, very talented guy,” said KU coach David Beaty, “and you could see glimpses of that tonight.”
Reesing, in the house for ceremonies honoring the 10-year anniversary of the 2008 Orange Bowl-winning squad, got a firsthand look at the streak-ending effort.
Bender was unaware of the seven-season gap between he and Reesing until a media member brought it up in a postgame interview. Despite that accomplishment, Bender was left wanting more.
“You know, it’s good to hear, but we have a lot to improve on,” Bender said. “We should’ve had more, to be honest.”
Only publicly revealed as the team’s starting quarterback when he trotted out for KU’s first drive, Bender finished 23-for-37 passing with 364 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. A junior who transferred to KU from Itawamba (Miss.) Community College this offseason, Bender beat out sophomore incumbent Carter Stanley for the gig.
The Jayhawks kept their starting quarterback secret even through the pregame starting lineups announcement, where only 10 offensive starters were revealed on the video board. Bender said Beaty informed him he’d won the competition after a team meeting Saturday afternoon.
“I just thought, you know, I’ve done everything,” Bender said. “I’ve shown them what I can do and I was confident that they were going to choose me. It’s nice to know they’ve got faith in me and that they’ve chosen me to be their guy.”
Bender, a Mike Leach disciple in the Air Raid offense while at Washington State, looked more than comfortable in new offensive coordinator Doug Meacham’s scheme. The Jayhawks’ five touchdown drives lasted a combined 5 minutes and 17 seconds, and four of those touchdown drives took three plays or less.
“We want to get up-tempo, get the defense a little rattled and have them out of position, which can help you hit big plays like that,” Bender said. “But I think a lot of our offense relies on a rhythm and getting in rhythm, a lot of times it’s just easy completions on first down, 4- or 5-yard runs on first down and we don’t do that.
“It’s hard for us to get into a rhythm. But really on those touchdown drives we just got into a rhythm early on and then we hit some explosive plays.”
The Jayhawks, 2-22 in David Beaty’s first two seasons as head coach, won a season opener against an FCS-level opponent for the second straight season.
Leading 21-10 in the third quarter, Bender and the Jayhawks went to work.
A 10-yard rushing touchdown from true freshman Dom Williams made the margin 18, and after a Redhawks (0-1) three-and-out, Bender found tight end Ben Johnson on a 57-yard touchdown strike down the middle of the field to suddenly make the advantage 35-10.
Those two scoring drives lasted a combined 1 minute and 12 seconds, and while Southeast Missouri State added a fourth-quarter score, the KU victory appeared in hand at that point.
Junior wideout Steven Sims, a Houston native, finished with a career-high 142 yards and two touchdowns on four receptions and Johnson posted 90 yards and one score on three catches on an evening when nine Jayhawks hauled in receptions.
Junior linebacker and Lawrence native Joe Dineen, who missed virtually all of last season with hamstring injury, returned with a vengeance, notching a game-high 15 tackles.
KU (1-0) started and finished the first half strong en route to a 21-7 lead into the break.
The Jayhawks scored touchdowns on their first, second and last drives of the first half. Sims got KU on the board with a 77-yard catch-and-run burst on a slant, Chase Harrell hauled in a highlight reel one-handed grab in the corner of the end zone, and with 13 seconds left in the half, Bender again found Sims, this time streaking in the back of the end one, on a 16-yard scoring dart.
Everything in between that scoring for KU could at best be described as largely underwhelming.
Tyler Patrick fumbled a punt return fighting for extra yardage to set up Southeast Missouri State’s lone first-half score — a 9-yard touchdown pass from Jesse Mockett to Trevon Billington. The Jayhawks gained only 17 yards on 11 first-half carries. And while Bender eclipsed 200 yards passing in the first half, he also had an interception thrown badly behind wide receiver Jeremiah Booker.
“A lot of self-inflicted things that I think if we can get them shored up, which I know we can, we’ve got a chance to be a decent football team,” Beaty said. “But those things can’t show up.”
Bender admitted the Jayhawks took their foot off the gas too often Saturday.
“We messed up some play calls, had guys doing a few things they shouldn’t be doing,” Bender said. “We’ve just got to clean that up. It’s Week 1, and it shouldn’t be an excuse, but we’ve got to watch the film. We’ve got a lot to improve on.”
The Jayhawks continue their season at 3 p.m. Saturday against Central Michigan. The Chippewas (1-0) needed three overtimes to win their opener against Rhode Island, 30-27.
The contest represents another opportunity at a victory for Bender, and more than the touchdowns and yardage, that’s what he hopes his legacy will be when he finishes his final KU start.
“If anything, I just want to bring wins to (the program),” Bender said. “It’s something the fans deserve. It’s been a long time. If I can do anything, it’s just to be remembered as a winner.”
With Reesing, Aqib Talib, Mark Mangino and the rest of the Orange Bowl-winning team in town — and still walking with as much swag as they did a decade ago — Bender and the Jayhawks have a good model to emulate going forward.
“If we can carry ourselves with that type of confidence,” Bender said, “who knows what we can accomplish?”