OXFORD, Ohio — Just when it seems Khalil Mack has exhausted his supply of the spectacular and reached the apex of his UB career, hold that thought.
There he goes again.
In what might go down as the signature performance of an extraordinary senior season, Mack broke one NCAA career record and drew closer to another Tuesday night as the University at Buffalo manhandled winless Miami, 44-7, in front of family, friends and a few RedHawk diehards who braved sub-freezing temperatures at Yager Stadium.
Mack came into the game needing one forced fumble to tie the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) career standard of 14 held by five players. He forced three, all in the first half, one of which Okoye Houston returned for a touchdown.
“He tied the record, broke the record, then really took another step past the record,” said Bulls linebacker Jake Stockman.
“It’s been a long journey but God is good and I can’t take all the credit for my success on the field,” Mack said. “I got great teammates. It was great to be able to make those plays and glad we got the win on top of it.”
Mack entered the game needing 5.5 tackles for loss to tie the 10-year-old NCAA FBS career record. He notched three, all first-half sacks, and came tantalizingly close to two more behind-the-line takedowns. He needs 2.5 TFL to catch record-holder Jason Babin of Western Michigan and should have at least two more games (including a postseason bowl) to hunt.
UB (8-3, 6-1) continued to bounce back in a big way from the humbling first half in last Tuesday’s 51-41 loss at Toledo. The Bulls have outscored the opposition, 85-20, since the first minute of the third quarter of that game and have scored at least 30 in each of their last eight games. They are also the first UB team to win six Mid-American Conference games in a season and the first with eight wins overall since the MAC championship team of 2008.
A mismatch seemed in prospect although UB’s record at Yager Stadium sung a different tune. The Bulls had won here just once (2009), and a scoreless first quarter was a reminder of past struggles. A 28-point second quarter put the demons to bed.
The Bulls punished Miami on the ground as both Branden Oliver (150 yards) and Anthone Taylor (154 yards) hit the century mark. Oliver, who also scored a pair of touchdowns, is within 20 yards of his school single-season record set as a sophomore. He called it a night in the third quarter.
“Our offensive line did a great job today,” quarterback Joe Licata said. “We ran the ball very effectively. Branden Oliver and Anthone Taylor did a great job running it.”
Miami got nothing going until the waning minutes. A TD run by backup quarterback Drew Kummer with 3:04 left against defensive reserves spoiled what would have been UB’s second road shutout of the season. Last time that happened was 1962.
Oliver’s performance was overshadowed by the incomparable Mack.
The best player ever to wear a UB uniform continually slipped through Miami’s offensive line as if he were a ghost. Mack’s first half numbers: seven tackles, three sacks, three forced fumbles and sole possession of an NCAA career record.
Mack had a strip/sack of quarterback Austin Gearing on Miami’s first possession, a forced fumble. The RedHawks recovered that one. They weren’t as fortunate on the next two.
UB had a 14-0 lead when Mack whirled and sprinted downfield after Gearing broke containment. He caught the Miami quarterback from behind and ripped the ball away in a single motion for forced fumble No. 15. Cortney Lester recovered and it led to Oliver’s second touchdown of the half, a 10-yard jaunt through the right side.
Miami had seen enough of Mack by this point. He hadn’t seen enough of Gearing. Mack inexplicably went unblocked off the left edge on the eighth play of the RedHawks’ next possession. He hammered Gearing before the quarterback finished his drop, jarring the ball loose. Houston scooped it up and ran 60 yards for a touchdown.
After a slow start, UB’s offense kicked into gear near the end of the first quarter. Devin Campbell’s 8-yard punt return provided UB its best field position to that point – the Miami 45. Oliver nearly covered the final 39 yards of the drive himself. In fact, his physics-defying run down the brink of the left sideline was originally called a touchdown before replays ruled he stepped out at the 1. When two Oliver runs failed, Licata went to the air and connected with fullback Alex Dennison for the game’s first score and a 7-0 lead. The pass kept alive Licata’s streak of throwing for at least one TD in every game this season.
The Bulls drove 71 yards in 10 plays on their next possession for a 14-0 advantage. Completions of 21 and 11 yards to Fred Lee helped set up Oliver for a 1-yard scoring run and his 31st career TD – three shy of James Starks’ UB career mark.