When the BYU Cougars won the toss against the No. 7 Texas Longhorns on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and deferred to the second half, the 100,000 fans in attendance got a quick look at how Texas quarterback Maalik Murphy planned to approach his first collegiate start — dancing and showcasing his trademark energy.
Maalik Murphy’s charisma is contagious.— Landon Holifield ✭ (@TheLandoShow) October 29, 2023
Very easy to see why his teammates love him.
There’s lots to improve on (as I’m sure he’d be the 1st to admit) but he played very well today all things considered.
He’s got a fan in me #HookEm pic.twitter.com/7vGqHrI1vQ
After a 35-6 win, it was no surprise to see Murphy leave Campbell-Williams Field the same way.
Maalik Murphy all smiles - and dance - after a 35-6 win over BYU.— Bob Ballou (@BobBallouSports) October 28, 2023
Murphy: 16-25, 170 yards, 2 TD, INT pic.twitter.com/XEzHb9EoB3
“Super loose — that’s just my personality,” Murphy said of how he felt to start the game. “Going into it, the coaches told me, don’t change, be me. So that’s what I did, go out there dancing, having fun, and enjoying it.”
In between all the dancing, Murphy was 16-of-25 passing for 176 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and one fumble, the type of highs and lows expected for a redshirt freshman with limited game reps in high school who nonetheless possesses prodigious natural passing talent.
Here's every throw from Maalik Murphy's first college start vs BYU— Nash (@NashTalksTexas) October 29, 2023
|| 16-25, 170 yards, 2 TD, INT ||
Tell me how you think he did below ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/kWNGFzxzzB
Sarkisian got Murphy involved early and often with passes on seven of the first nine plays for Texas.
“It just gave me, honestly, a lot of faith in coach,” said Murphy. “He believed in me. If he’s able to script that many openers as passes for me in my start that kind of just tells me something that he’s not letting off the gas and he believes in my ability, so that was huge.”
Unfortunately for Murphy, he hit those lows quickly when his seventh pass was intercepted and he fumbled one drive later.
Fortunately for the Longhorns, the Cougars proved an overmatched enough opponent that the two turnovers only led to three points for BYU — the interception thrown by Murphy turned into an interception by Texas sophomore cornerback Terrance Brooks three plays later and the red-zone fumble took 16 plays to convert into a field goal.
“He had a couple of those turnovers which were because we’re a little out of rhythm and I think we can clean some of that rhythm up as he gets a little bit more comfortable as we move forward,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said.
“Both turnovers were, quite frankly, unfortunate for him.”
The interception came on a 2nd and 10 from the BYU 41-yard line in the first quarter, a play that appeared confused from the start — Texas had trouble getting the right personnel on the field, the snap seemed to take Murphy by surprise, and junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy looked like he was run blocking, leaving his quarterback without an outlet under pressure since the running back stayed in to pass block.
“The first one, we had a bit of a miscommunication and we didn’t get even a route from the receiver on the front side and so now he gets a little bit of pressure and that’s some of the growing pains as a quarterback is sometimes you need to eat the ball and take the sack and not just kind of try to throw it, especially when you’re getting hit,” said Sarkisian.
On the first play of the second quarter, a 1st and 10 from the BYU 11-yard line, Sarkisian called a return motion pass intended for junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy, but Texas wasn’t able to handle a defensive end coming off the edge and Murphy was hit trying to throw the ball, causing a fumble recovered by the Cougars.
“The second one, we’re in a max protection and I think our running back and guard kind of run into each other and we don’t block the defensive end, and again, probably had a pretty good chance at a touchdown pass, and so that’s some of the growing pains of sometimes you gotta eat it,” said Sarkisian.
Those growing pains are in part related to the lack of game reps for Murphy, who hadn’t been in a live setting since the state championship game as senior during which he injured his ankle.
“Maybe in a practice setting Maalik gets that ball off because the quarterback’s not live and the defender has to pull off and now you can get that throw done,” said Sarkisian. “In person, now you realize he’s going to hit me if I raise my arm up and the ball is going to come out and so I think that’s a really cool lesson learned for him.”
After the game and during the Monday press conference, Sarkisian emphasized the importance of playing well around Murphy, who was able to recover from his early mistakes.
“The way that he responded from both of those two turnovers, I thought was great — Maalik’s got really good composure about him and I think a little bit was the guys wanted to play so well around him that sometimes you can try a little too hard, you’re trying to make up for other stuff, and we just need guys to do their jobs and do their jobs really well. But I was proud of Malik in the way that he responded,” said Sarkisian.
After the interception, Murphy completed his next six consecutive passes. Those throws ultimately netted only 39 yards, in part a credit to Sarkisian settling his young quarterback down with easy completions long enough for Murphy to connect on his first collegiate touchdown pass, a 30-yard throw to junior wide receiver AD Mitchell on a 3rd and 8 late in the second quarter.
Maalik Murphy’s first career TD pass goes to AD Mitchell. pic.twitter.com/0HUapvCE7P— TFB Texas (@TFB_Texas) October 28, 2023
Murphy said it was a play that Longhorns worked on all week, a high red zone or shot play with Mitchell faking a corner route before getting vertical and creating separation to allow a throw that Murphy put in the right spot and with the appropriate amount of touch for his wide receiver to make a play on the ball.
“Even the deep ball to AD for the touchdown, he has a natural feel of putting air under a ball or layering a ball, so that part’s pretty natural to him,” said Sarkisian.
Just as impressive was a throw Murphy made in the first quarter just before the interception — a 20-yard completion to junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders layered over a linebacker and in front of a safety.
This might be my favorite throw and catch from the day so far. Excellent job by Ja'Tavion Sanders to hold on, and that's really tough ball placement by Maalik Murphy. pic.twitter.com/4EqaxKSzyr— Sam Teets (@Sam_Teets33) October 28, 2023
Later in the game, Murphy showed off his elite arm strength on a slant to Mitchell for a 13-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Maalik Murphy to Adonai Mitchell for their second TD connection of the day! pic.twitter.com/eTbsACPCLG— Hook'em Headlines (@HookemHeadlines) October 28, 2023
“Where you saw the arm talent, the slant he throws to AD on the touchdown, that was a fastball and that thing was coming, so he definitely has the ability to change trajectories on the ball, to change velocity on the ball and still remain accurate, and so a lot of that to me, I think he learned really young and the passing of the football is very natural to him,” said Sarkisian.
The combination of Murphy’s arm strength and touch allows Sarkisian to access parts of the playbook that he couldn’t feature when he was a college quarterback at BYU.
“I love to throw deep out routes, but I’m not very good at it, right? So naturally, I didn’t want those calls when I played, I wish I could have, but with Maalik, he’s got all the arm talent in the world, there’s a comfort level of the progressions and different things that we do that hopefully we’re putting him in position to have a great deal of success.”
One concern moving forward into Saturday’s game against Kansas State is creating explosive plays with junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy, or, at the least, turning catches into catches with the improved efficiency Worthy and Quinn Ewers showed when the starter was healthy. Against BYU, Worthy caught only 4-of-10 targets for 27 yards and all four of those catches came behind the line of scrimmage.
Texas must find ways to get Xavier Worthy the ball down the field next week.— CJ Vogel (@CJVogel_TFB) October 31, 2023
I worry about Texas' ability to create chunk plays against Kansas State if there is a repeat of Worthy's receiving chart from the BYU game. pic.twitter.com/ZKFZuDAmGu
In terms of targets and receptions, it wasn’t altogether unlike the TCU game last year in which Worthy caught 4-of-12 targets, but many of those targets were well downfield — the four short incompletions past the line of scrimmage, not including the interception, are passes that Murphy needs to complete more frequently.
So while Sarkisian graded Murphy’s first start with some context in mind, the standard begins to raise in the coming games, especially in avoiding turnovers, and in fact exists outside of any context.
“We’re fortunate that a couple of those lessons learned we were able to bounce back from, he was able to bounce back from, so we learned a lot there about himself that maybe you don’t have to deal with in a practice setting and we were able to overcome those things and win a ballgame pretty convincingly,” said Sarkisian.
“The next time it comes up, the goal is that he doesn’t do some of those same things and so there’s an understanding of it’s his first time out there, but there’s also a standard and an expectation of how we play at the position and that’s what we hold everybody to.”