The play wasn't much to look at: a handoff to the running back, who went nowhere. But it was a milestone for Morgan Mahalak, Towson's quarterback who hadn't taken a snap in a football game for three years.
Did the rust show? In a 56-20 loss at favored South Florida on Saturday, Mahalak — a transfer from Oregon — completed 16 of 36 passes for 165 yards. He was sacked twice and intercepted once for the Tigers (0-1). It was a rude baptism for the redshirt sophomore, a onetime ballyhooed high school quarterback who trekked 3,000 miles for a fresh start and a chance to lead Towson to the playoffs.
"It was reassuring, to get that first play — and game — out of the way," Mahalak said. "There were highs and lows, and I took some knocks. But I'm as confident as confident can be for the next one."
Towson hosts St. Francis (0-1) at Johnny Unitas Stadium on Saturday at 6 p.m.
Three years ago, Mahalak had never heard of Towson. A four-star, all-state first-team quarterback in California, he earned a scholarship to Oregon as a high school junior. At Oregon, as a freshman, he dressed for the national championship on Jan. 12, 2015, when the previously undefeated Ducks lost to Ohio State, 42-20.
Being on the field at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, before a raucous crowd of nearly 86,000 was "pretty incredible, something you dream of all your life," Mahalak said. "I was on cloud nine. It doesn't get much better than that."
Then his career stalled. He'd hoped to be heir to the departing Marcus Mariota, Oregon's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. But Oregon wooed a senior transfer in 2015, then another this year. Their arrivals chased Mahalak out the door.
"That was tough for me," he said. "I was a little bit blindsided by the back-to-back transfers; it was a bit of a slap in the face. But I try to put that in the past. I've completely moved on."
For a month, Mahalak wrestled with his decision to leave Oregon. Other schools made overtures — Colorado, James Madison and Temple. But after a visit last winter, his first time in Maryland, he chose Towson.
In part, he accepts blame for flat-lining at Oregon.
"When I got there, I probably wasn't as prepared as I should have been," he said. "I didn't know what it took. Going from high school to a top college program is a big jump, playbook-wise and physicality-wise. I was naïve, like a lot of kids. Going in, preparation isn't something that you quite understand. Now, knowing that and going forward, it's easier for me."
Those two years as a Duck out of water were not wasted, he said.
"I grew up a little bit there. I learned how to handle adversity," Mahalak said. "As a competitor, not getting on the field is something you hate to feel. I learned that a lot of times in life, things aren't going to go the way you want."
Towson has rallied around Mahalak, 20. His self-assurance is infectious, wide receiver Andre Dessenberg said.
"Morgan brings a positivity to the huddle. He knows he can do it and he believes we all can do it," said Dessenberg, who caught five passes in the opener. "When you can look a quarterback in the eye and see that relaxed confidence, it helps the offense that much more — and that's Morgan."
It's a leadership mantra Mahalak learned at Oregon from Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
"Watching Marcus taught me to stay in the moment, focus on one play at a time and keep things as simple as you can because football can get kind of hectic out there," he said. "Just dial in the other 10 guys in the huddle and get them to do their job."
Did Mahalak pass muster in Towson's opener?
"I was pleased with some things and displeased with others," coach Rob Ambrose said. "He had too many turnovers under his belt, for which he had some responsibility, if not all. But for a guy who hadn't had any game reps in three years to go play [South Florida] …
"I wish his first game would not have been against a team of that caliber, but I like what I see moving forward."
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