Oct 14, 2017; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones wide receiver Marchie Murdock (16) celebrates after his touchdown in the third quarter against the Kansas Jayhawks at Jack Trice Stadium. Iowa State beat Kansas 45 to 0. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — When Marchie Murdock lines up at wide receiver and eyes the end zone, he knows who’ll draw the bulk of the secondary’s scrutiny.
And it’s not him.
Not yet, anyway — though that could change as the Iowa State senior keeps racking up touchdowns and big plays for an offense teeming with potent receiving threats headlined by Allen Lazard and Hakeem Butler.
“With those guys being in the red zone, big targets, they’re going to get most of the attention,” said Murdock, who played sparingly last season but enters Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at Texas Tech tied with Lazard for the team lead in touchdown catches with four. “I have the one-on-one matchup and I’ve just got to win my matchup.”
So far, so good for the Arlington, Texas native, who reconnected with his love of the game once he arrived in Ames late last summer.
Fully adding Murdock to the mix at receiver has helped ISU (4-2, 2-1 Big 12) field one of the most deep and diverse group of pass catchers in the country.
The Cyclones are one of six teams nationally to feature five players with 200 or more receiving yards this season. Butler leads the team with 372 receiving yards. Lazard — the FBS leader in consecutive games with at least one reception (41) — paces ISU in catches with 30. Trever Ryen has 277 yards through the air, including a 57-yard touchdown at Oklahoma. Star back David Montgomery’s caught 20 passes for 204 yards.
Then there’s Murdock, who has already reestablished career highs in yards (237) and touchdowns (four) six games into his senior season.
“Marchie’s one of those guys that, again, just a great success story, in my opinion,” said Cyclones coach Matt Campbell, whose team will need its full array of aerial weapons to post an upset Saturday in Lubbock. “I know I was the one that raved about him coming out of spring practice and he really did — he had a great spring for us. Was really impressive and you know you’ve got some young guys coming like Hakeem, and Matt Eaton comes into the fold, but Marchie was just one of those guys who was on a mission from the end of last football season.”
When many others went out in the offseason, Murdock studied film. Or worked out. Or conversed with quarterbacks.
“The days a lot of people go out, I’m at the facility working out, trying to figure out ways to help this team become successful,” Murdock said. “A lot of film. Quarterback work. Getting the timing down.”
Of course Murdock’s one of many at his position to shine in the work ethic category. Lazard’s been not only a record-setter, but also a standard-bearer throughout this career. Butler’s fully committed, too. Across the receivers room, a symbiotic relationship has formed. They push each other and feed off each other. If attention skews one way, others makes defenses pay.
“We jelled and got to work this offseason,” Murdock said. “It helped us out a lot.”
It also helps former third-string and now starting quarterback Kyle Kempt maintain his unflappable demeanor in the huddle, the pocket, and while going through reads.
Kempt’s completed 70.5 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and zero interceptions since taking over the job from Jacob Park, who’s dealing with personal health issues and remains on indefinite leave.
Kempt’s unexpected and epic performance in the 38-31 win at then-No. 3 Oklahoma two weeks ago included hitting seven different receivers — and three different targets, including Murdock, for touchdowns.
“I think that’s really big and I think the opportunity that he’s got where he’s got playmakers in a lot of areas (is important),” Campbell said. “The wide receiver spot. Chase Allen and some of those guys starting to come on (at tight end). And certainly in our backfield with David and Mike (Warren). So he doesn’t have to go win the game by himself. He’s just got to do a really good job of making great decisions and that’s his niche. He’s a great decision maker, especially in the heat of the moment. If he continues to do that he’ll continue to play at a really high rate.”
Just like Murdock, who never really found his footing at Illinois, but now — whether manned up or drawing more attention —has turned his curtain-call season into a game-changing one for himself and his teammates.
“You just try to make a play,” he said. “Last game, I saw the end zone and I was just trying to get in there. You don’t want it to get into the kicker’s hands. We have a great kicker (Garrett Owens), but at the same time you want to score touchdowns and you want to finish teams off. That’s what we have to learn how to do even now: Finish teams.”
APPROACHING THE “AIR RAID”
The Cyclones’ defense has shined early in the conference season — so much so, that it leads the Big 12 in total defense (310.3 yards per game) and scoring defense (16.0 points per game) in league games only. The key so far: Being “multiple.” That, Campbell said, will be as important as ever against a Tech offense averaging 44.8 points per game and 543.7 yards per game.
“It’s a great challenge for us, because they’ve got playmakers on the outside, they do a nice job of running the football right now and I think they are really consistent in what they do,” Campbell said. “So I think much like some of the better quarterbacks that we’ve had to face, we’re going to have to be multiple. We can’t just sit in one thing. We really have to be able to deliver some different looks and (at the same time) also be really sound in what we do, so it’s a great challenge for us — especially having the ability to do it on the road in an environment where they’ve been able to consistently play good football.”
So a three-main front? Four-man front? Stay tuned — and expect both, along with lots of shifting and stunting.
“Explosive,” ISU cornerback Brian Peavy said of the Red Raiders. “A lot of playmakers on the field. It’s the usual Texas Tech. They want to outscore you.”
PAST LOSSES = TODAY’S SUCCESS (SO FAR)
Campbell said last season’ 66-10 pummeling of Tech in Ames has no bearing on this season’s matchup. He’s focused on 2017 film alone.
“I just think in that (66-10) game there were so many different variables,” Campbell said. “The weather. (Patrick) Mahomes getting hurt early in the game. But I think from our end, winning a game was really important. Winning one at home against a conference opponent was important. But I still think this: so many of those losses were so much more of a great learning experience for us and understanding why we weren’t winning games and why those games were close and we were still having some success within them, then losing those games at the end of the game in the third or fourth quarter — I think that was such a great learning experience for this team. Obviously, anytime you win a game, it’s great, but I still go back to those tough losses. I think those were imperative to us at least being able to have some success at the start of this season.”