If UB linebacker Khalil Mack never made a tackle this season his impact on the UB defense would be subtly less profound. Just look at the resources opponents commit to stop him: double-teams, triple-teams, head coach Jeff Quinn swears he’s even seen a four-bagger. And when opponents are obsessed with containing Mack, that leaves 10 teammates eager to detect the security breach.
“When you have teams so focused on Khalil it just leaves everyone open for one-on-one matchups,” defensive end Colby Way said after his own three-sack effort against Western Michigan. “And when you have a one-on-one matchup you have to be able to win it.”
Mack’s presence alone makes UB’s defense better. Then there’s also the matter of his production. In spite of all the attention he commands, Mack’s having the best all-around statistical season of his career. He leads UB in tackles with 41. He leads the Mid-American Conference in tackles for loss with eight. His five sacks are tied with Way for first on the team and tied for second in the MAC.
Mack sits one sack shy of UB’s career record of 24. He’s two forced fumbles away from the NCAA FBS career mark of 14. He’s tied for sixth all-time nationally in career tackles for loss, just two from third place and 11 from matching the record. CBSsports.com and USA Today named him a first-team, midseason All-American.
But the number that stands out has nothing to do with Mack’s ferocity in proximity to the line of scrimmage. The eye-opener is that he ranks second on the team and 22nd in the conference with four passes defended, including the interception return for a touchdown against Ohio State that rocketed him up the NFL draft board.
“He is a complete linebacker,” said UB defensive coordinator Lou Tepper. “In my career, I’ve probably only had three or four that can play Sam, Mike, Will or line up on the edge and rush the passer, and he’s one of those guys. A year ago he wasn’t the space defender that he is now.”
UB will be gunning for a fifth straight victory at 3:30 Saturday at home against UMass. The defense as a whole has dominated, allowing two touchdowns a game or fewer throughout the streak. Game-planning for the Bulls presents a quandary with Mack being at the heart of the puzzle. UMass coach Charley Molnar refers to last year, when efforts to neutralize Mack freed up defensive end Steven Means in a 29-19 UB victory.
“It’s the same challenge that everybody’s had going into the game,” Molnar said Monday. “We were watching Ohio State this morning and they put a tight end on him at times and he just totally whipped him right off the ball. A lot of teams put an offensive lineman and a running back on him and when you do those things now you open one-on-ones somewhere else along the line. Last year we did that and some plays we were able to neutralize him but that other guy, No. 40, ate up our tackles in one-on-one situations.
“So you have to pick and chose how you’re going to control him. And nobody really controls him very, very well. We watch him split double-teams and make the tackle for a loss. We watch people try to cut block him and he plays off the tight end and intercepts a ball and takes it for a touchdown. So it’s going to take all of our attention for the next several days, not only leading into the game but throughout the game, trying to figure out ways that we can slow him down.”
And therein lies the rub. To minimize Mack’s direct impact on the game is to maximize his overall influence.
“Where Mack has impacted us is that people have just fear to run at him,” Tepper said. “Like the one game Blake Bean ended up with seven or eight tackles, but Blake Bean had to go make those tackles. He played well to make them. But he does have an impact there and then the other impact is obviously the passing game. Did Colby Way do a great job of pass rushing? Absolutely. Did the fact Mack had three guys blocking him help and give him more opportunities? Absolutely.”
Mack made it clear before the season that individual honors don’t mean all that much. He’s in his fourth season. He’s a two-time all-MAC selection. But he’s never played for a winner. If UB’s defense excels because of his presence alone, so be it, as long as victory’s the result.
“You can talk about the other teams, you can talk about all that, but we’re playing lights out on defense,” Mack said after facing Western Michigan. “Everybody’s playing spectacular. You got Najja Johnson and Cortney Lester and all those guys making adjustments and playing on the ball. That’s all we need. I keep telling them, ‘If we get a little pressure, be ready for the ball to be thrown in the air and go get it.’ ”
“You can scheme all day long,” Quinn said of opposing offenses. “You just got to keep doing a good job with moving him around. Lou does that and Khalil does that.”
“The great thing about Khalil is even when you’re blocking all those people he’s still going to get in there and make plays,” Way said. “It really doesn’t matter.”
How does Mack impact a game? Quinn sums it up this way:
“Best player I’ve ever coached.”