AUSTIN, Texas — In the space created by a 37-yard touchdown thrown by Texas Longhorns quarterback Maalik Murphy to junior wide receiver AD Mitchell and a 47-yard completion two throws later against the Kansas State Wildcats on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, the possibilities for the matchup between the nation’s No. 7 team and No. 23 team felt like a cornucopia of potential success for the Longhorns.
With Murphy starting the game hot and the Texas defense dominating Kansas State at the point of attack, the Longhorns appeared destined for a comfortable victory. Instead, Murphy ran cold and turnovers helped even the game, setting up a thrilling overtime finish with Texas narrowly emerging with the win.
Through the course of the game, Murphy flashed his immense upside and looked like a redshirt freshman deficient in game reps dating back to his high school career.
Maalik Murphy did struggle in the middle of the game, but when we NEEDED a drive...Maalik delivered.— Nash (@NashTalksTexas) November 7, 2023
He was 16/32 247 yards (69.6%) 10.73 YPA, I'd consider that to be good. pic.twitter.com/QG90idDTeY
Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian’s game plan was effective early, putting Murphy and Mitchell in positions to succeed until Kansas State made a critical defensive adjustment.
“We had to get a post player — they were getting us in some formations that didn’t allow us to have a post player just by some of our base things,” said Kansas State head coach Chris Kleiman.
The 37-yard touchdown and the 47-yard completion to Mitchell were perfect examples of Sarkisian taking advantage of Kansas State’s quarters coverage without a post player.
On the touchdown pass halfway through the first quarter, the Wildcats had the single deep safety aligned to the boundary hash to bracket Xavier Worthy, but with three receivers to the field for Texas, Kansas State had cornerback Jacob Parrish lined up in tight coverage against Mitchell while playing bail technique. With Mitchell running a go route with a slight hesitation to stack Parrish, Murphy had an easy read against a favorable matchup that the Georgia transfer won easily despite contact near the catch point on a perfect delivery from the young Texas quarterback.
Perfect throw by Maalik Murphy to Adonai Mitchell— Brendan Moore (@bmoorecfb) November 4, 2023
Texas strikes first
Sarkisian got a similar look from the base Wildcats defense on a 1st and 10 on the subsequent drive in 12 personnel with a clean boundary and both tight ends and wide receivers to the field — Kansas State provided more cushion on the outside, but still had a single high safety, leaving Parrish in one-on-one coverage against Mitchell, once again a losing proposition on a play that Mitchell finished with a finger-tip catch. Otherwise, a throw in stride by Murphy would have produced an 82-yard touchdown.
In retrospect, the inability to produce a touchdown on a well-devised play and strong, simple read by Murphy was troubling since the drive ultimately stalled on multiple incompletions and a false-start penalty that forced a 32-yard field goal by Bert Auburn.
Murphy’s final completion of that drive went for 19 yards to Jordan Whittington, a strong decision opting against a double move intended for freshman wide receiver Johntay Cook up the sideline and instead coming back to Whittington on a deep crossing route with an impressive touch pass. The completion to Whittington was Murphy’s ninth attempt and seventh completion with more than two minutes remaining in the first quarter that went for 152 yards and a touchdown, the only touchdown Murphy threw against Kasnas State and 61.2 percent of his total passing yards.
On the following 28 attempts by the redshirt freshman quarterback, only 12 were completions, and none went for more than 10 yards until after Murphy threw an awful interception on a blown-up screen pass early in the fourth quarter.
“They’ve got really good wide receivers and those guys can roll, so we adjusted some things and knew we were going to give up a little bit more in the run game to try to get a post player. We were able to do that, then we were able to get some pressure, and the pressure caused some errant throws,” said Kleiman.
Still, Murphy remained solidly effective as Texas held a 17-0 lead in the second quarter while mounting a drive with the potential to bury Kansas State that featured two completions, a seven-yard run by Jonathon Brooks, and a 16-yard run by Worthy on an end around before a shot play targeting Johntay Cook resulted in the freshman wide receiver getting tripped up and Parrish finding some measure of redemption with an easy interception.
The interception wasn’t necessarily Murphy’s fault, but it did demonstrably put him out of rhythm until the fourth quarter — the next 11 passes by Murphy produced 11 yards, including the aforementioned and inexcusable fourth-quarter interception that injured starting left tackle Kelvin Banks and led to a two-play Kansas State touchdown drive narrowing the margin to 27-21.
Two issues tend to surface for Murphy when he struggles — not stepping up in the pocket and breakdowns in his footwork.
“I think more than anything for Malik in the game was stepping up in the pocket and not drifting in the pocket and drifting back in the pocket and stepping up and remaining accurate,” Sarkisian said on Monday.
“He’s a fantastic passer of the ball, has got great accuracy, and so when he gets inaccurate at times, we go right back to his feet and I think he would tell you the same thing — making sure his feet are right.”
In another concerning development, Murphy didn’t even pay for all of his poor decisions with turnovers as Kansas State recorded six passes broken up, meaning that a full 21.6 percent of his pass attempts were either intercepted or hit the hands of defenders.
“We had a couple picks, we had a couple dropped picks, we had a couple of other opportunities to intercept the football, and we didn’t do it, and that’s this game of inches,” said Kleiman.
Murphy considered the turnovers unusual even though he’s given the ball away twice in each of his first two starts.
“They’re just uncharacteristic, honestly,” said Murphy. “I’ve got to do better as the quarterback of the team not putting the ball in harm’s way.”
Murphy was able to hit some explosive plays after his second interception, completing 5-of-6 passes for 62 yards in the fourth quarter, including a crucial conversion on 4th and 4 to Ja’Tavion Sanders for a 16-yard gain.
“I was I was very proud of Malik in the response that he had on the drive in that fourth quarter to get us down to kick that field goal was some some really big throws to add a really critical fourth-down conversion to JT Sanders,” said Sarkisian.
But Murphy stalled out again late, missing on his final four attempts, including what Sarkisian believed was a touchdown pass to Worthy on 3rd and 5 from the Kansas State 16-yard line, a play disrupted by the Wildcats defensive back holding Worthy off the line of scrimmage and deep into his route. Texas settled for a field goal to take a 30-27 lead with 6:03 remaining in the game.
“I almost feel for guys when they’re early in their career playing,” said Sarkisian. ”It was such a good start for him now and he was making some great plays and there were some things there that obviously we felt good about.”
In discussing the interceptions by Murphy and the need to throw the ball away at times, Sarkisian reiterated a talking point from last week about the difficulty of moving from a practice or scrimmage situation in which quarterbacks are non contact to actually getting hit in games, as well as the lack of consequences in a scripted practice compared to the massive momentum swings in a game.
“sometimes you have to have the real-life experience, you have to have some of those growing pains to to understand the value of those types of plays, and they’re the least sexiest plays for a quarterback,” said Sarkisian.
“It is a tough thing to do, though — one of the hardest plays a quarterback ever has to make is throwing a ball away because you think competitively there’s always a throw that I can make. But quite frankly, the most competitive play a lot of times you can make is throwing that away when you’re competing for your team and the impact that it has for your team and earning the right to punt and let your defense go play defense.”
Now Murphy has to accomplish one of the more difficult tasks in sports — learning lessons from mistakes and applying them on the field to demonstrate improvement.
“The sign of a really good player is that they don’t make the same mistakes twice and that they learn from those things, and I think Malik is a very conscientious young man and I think that he’ll definitely learn from that,” said Sarkisian.
After the win, Murphy’s reflections suggested a player grounded in how to get better.
“This is not a one man’s game — it’s a team team thing. I don’t have to try to be bigger than what I am. I can just you know, play the game, play it as it is, believe in the coaches, believe in the players around me not try to do too much,” said Murphy.