BOZEMAN — Chris Murray took over as Montana State’s starting quarterback in Week 7 of last season. He had just turned 18 years old, was learning on the fly as a wet-behind-the-ears true freshman and had yet show tangible improvement as a passer.
To put it in perspective, Murray averaged roughly four completions per game a year ago.
For 10 months he waited to answer his critics, and faced countless questions of how and when the Bobcats’ passing game would ever start operating at an effective clip.
Truly, Murray looked like a different quarterback throughout August — the hours of work he put in with his new position coach, DeNarius McGhee, seemed to have paid off.
Then came the season-opener against Washington State, and the passing game sputtered against a superior defense. Then came a showdown with FCS power South Dakota State, and Murray was again stagnant for most of the first half.
He started the game against the Jackrabbits a pedestrian 4 for 9 for 35 yards in the first quarter. He threw a costly interception in the end zone in the second quarter — a pass that would have been a touchdown had Murray released it a split second sooner.
At that point you were thinking: “What’s changed?” But that’s when lighting struck.
Murray stepped up considerably after halftime and finished the game on a 62-percent heater (13 for 21) compared to 48 percent (10 for 21) in the first half. He completed a staggering 15 passes of 10 or more yards, including a 41-yard touchdown to Jabarri Johnson and a 59-yard bomb to Lance McCutcheon.
The Bobcats lost 31-27, but Murray ended the game with career highs in attempts (42), completions (23), yards (311) and touchdowns (four). It was the passing performance everyone had been waiting for.
“Incredible,” Montana State center Alex Neale said. “You really have to hand it to him.”
But it’s what Murray didn't do that’s been on the quarterback’s mind during the Bobcats’ bye week. Particularly, the second-quarter interception.
Trailing 17-0 with less than four minutes before halftime, Murray was not quick enough to recognize receiver Mitch Herbert had broken off his post route and was wide open near the back corner of the end zone. Murray threw the ball, but safety Chris Balster had enough time to race over and pick it off.
“I just saw it late,” Murray said. “That’s what cost me.”
And though he completed better than 60 percent in the second half, Murray finished the game at roughly 55 percent, which is below what he and McGhee have set as their per-game standard of 65 percent.
Murray burned teams as a running quarterback last season, rushing for 860 yards and 12 touchdowns, which set new freshman records at MSU, and he had 107 rushing yards against South Dakota State.
Though Saturday was his coming out party as a passer, Murray is not satisfied.
“In high school I never really thought I was going to be a drop-back passer,” said Murray, who came to MSU from Lawndale High in the Los Angeles area. “But once I started my senior year I was like, ‘I really want to be a dual-threat quarterback.’ That’s the only way you can really make an impact.
“Running’s cool and all that, but if you want to take the next step you’ve got to be able to pass, and that’s the bottom line. Everyone knows it’s a passer’s (game) now, and that’s the bottom line. If you can have some athleticism at the quarterback position as well, that’s a plus too, but the bottom line is passing.”
The Bobcats spent Wednesday practicing against the scout team to simulate what they might see when they open Big Sky Conference play at North Dakota on Sept. 23. UND is a blitz-heavy defense, which will try to take Murray down a peg.
Offensive coordinator Brian Armstrong said the Fighting Hawks “bring pressure from the first snap to the last snap and it’s coming from everywhere. It’s linebackers, it’s safeties, it’s corners, and they don’t shy away from it. We’ve got to have a great plan for that and be ready for it.”
What does that mean for Murray?
“It’s going to be really important for me to get the ball out quick and for the receivers to create separation in the quick game,” he said. “I just want to go out and get it. We have the right pieces now. There should be no excuses.”