"Frankly, this is all a little overwhelming," said Geoff Bender, North Carolina State's wet-behind-the-ears quarterback, last Friday. "But I wouldn't say I'm nervous, and I'm not scared. I am, however, a little anxious."
No quarterback in the land had more cause to be anxious last weekend than did Bender, a redshirt freshman who had never started a college game and wasn't expecting to start in one this year. But when Terry Jordan, who had played splendidly for the Wolfpack since early last season, broke his left (nonthrowing) arm in the previous week's 24-7 win over North Carolina and was declared out for the remainder of the season, Bender was on the spot. And his first test would be against last season's co-national champion Georgia Tech.
"I have complete confidence in Geoff," North Carolina State coach Dick Sheridan said stoutly before the game. "He has made a lot of progress since spring, and we knew he had to, in case the worst happened, which happened."
It seemed to be the ultimate nightmare for the Wolfpack, which jumped off to a 4-0 start behind Jordan and a defense that was allowing fewer points (2.5 per game) than any other in the country. But what happened last Saturday in Raleigh turned out to be the ultimate dream for North Carolina State. Bender led the Wolfpack to a 28-21 victory over Georgia Tech by directing a dramatic game-winning drive in the waning minutes.
In truth, Bender—whose twin brother, Jason, punted for Tech—played unevenly most of the afternoon. He threw three interceptions and made a number of other poor passes. If it hadn't been for State's wondrous no-name defense, Bender would not have been in position to pull himself and his offense together at the game's end.
After Bender connected with flanker Reggie Lawrence on a seven-yard out pattern in the end zone with 5:39 left in the first quarter to put State ahead 6-0, the Wolfpack's only offense until the fourth quarter came from its defense. Twenty-three seconds after that first touchdown, State linebacker Tyler Lawrence made a shoestring interception and sped 32 yards for a score, Midway through the third quarter, free safety Ricky Turner picked a fumble from midair and zipped 26 yards for a TD that gave the Wolfpack an apparently comfortable 20-7 advantage.
Then in the span of less than one minute, Yellow Jacket fullback David Hendrix rambled 52 yards for a touchdown during a rare lapse by Wolfpack defenders, and Bender threw a wobbling pass right into the waiting hands of Tech corner-back Willie Clay. Clay ran 40 yards to the end zone, and the Rambling Wreck led 21-20. Soon after, Bender threw yet another interception, to cornerback Curley Day. It was painful to watch.
If Bender ever emerges as a star, observers will look back on State's game-winning march, which began with 9:11 remaining, as the moment that he served notice of impending fame. He took the Wolfpack 74 yards in 12 plays. Three penalties helped, but Bender mixed pinpoint passing with nervy running, scoring on a bootleg fake from two yards out with 2:43 to play.
Bender ended up completing 17 of 32 passes for a modest 138 yards, but more important, the Wolfpack was 5-0 when he was done. Meanwhile, Tech quarterback Shawn Jones reflected on an outing in which his offense converted only two of 15 third downs for the disappointing Yellow Jackets, who are now 2-3. "I knew this would be a tough year," Jones said. "It's like back when everybody wanted to kill the king."
Jones should heed Bender's counsel. "The thing about adversity is you know there is going to be some, so you can't overreact," says Bender. "You can't think about the past or you'll be scared to do anything in the future."
Spoken like a player with his feet planted firmly on the ground. He didn't, however, mention State's Oct. 26 game at Clemson, which now seems likely to determine the ACC champion. That should make him real anxious.
Bender was erratic against Georgia Tech, but he escaped with a win in his first start.