COLUMBUS, Ohio — Khalil Mack isn’t one for rousing public statements. Mack is a modest, respectful kid. Almost all his sentences contain the words “working hard.. He even addresses sports writers as “Sir.”
“I’m humbled by being noticed,” Mack, a senior outside linebacker, said Saturday after UB’s 40-20 loss to Ohio State. “But it’s all about my teammates. I go out and fight for them, every game.”
Mack did nicely for his teammates, and himself, in the season opener. The Bulls fell behind, 23-0, in the first quarter, and looked like a bunch of awestruck, overmatched schoolboys before a howling, scarlet-clad crowd of 103,980 at historic Ohio Stadium.
At that point, you wondered if coach Urban Meyer’s studs might drop 80 points on the Bulls, sending them skulking home to Buffalo with their pride wounded and their fans wondering if all the talk of contending for a MAC championship and a bowl berth was a bunch of hype.
Then Mack did what all great players do. He lifted his team and reminded them of what they’d been telling each other all along — that they belonged on the same field as Ohio State and could throw a good scare into the second-ranked Buckeyes if they played to their capabilities.
Mack didn’t simply prove he belonged. He was the best player on the field, a holy terror. He got noticed, all right. Mack had 2ø sacks against OSU quarterback Braxton Miller, the early favorite for the Heisman Trophy. He picked off a Miller pass and ran it back 45 yards for a TD.
It’s not as if Mack isn’t on the NFL radar. He’s seen as a late first-round pick in next April’s draft. But from what I understand, the league’s personnel men were gushing over what they saw against the Buckeyes. You could sense Mack shooting up teams’ draft boards.
You could also feel the spirits of the UB players surging as well. UB coach Jeff Quinn said he needed to settle his players down after their rough start. But there’s nothing like seeing your teammate dominate one of the best teams in America to rekindle your optimism.
“They’ve got a kid that kicked our tails,” Meyer said of Mack, who is 6-4, 240 pounds. “That outside linebacker had a couple of sacks, pressures. I know he beat guys that I expect to play very well on our offensive line.”
As anticipated, the Buckeyes’ superior talent and depth prevailed in the end. Mack could be the first Bull drafted in the first round in the modern NFL era. Heck, they haven’t had anyone drafted before the fourth round. For Ohio State, it’s a letdown when they don’t have multiple players taken in the first round.
But UB gave them a real scare Saturday. Mack’s pick-six cut the deficit to 23-13. The Bulls came out inspired after halftime and again drew within 10, 30-20, on Joe Licata’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Alex Neutz.
Mack was really attracting notice now. Midway through the third, he sacked Miller deep in Ohio State territory. The ball came loose and the Bulls recovered at the OSU 2. But Mack was flagged for a hands-to-the-face penalty, nullifying the turnover.
Still, it was a brief, exhilirating moment for UB football. It looked as if the Bulls were about to pull within three points of the No. 2 team in the country. I began to wonder, where would it rank in the history of Buffalo sports upsets if they pulled it off? First?
“We knew we were going to fight to the end,” Mack said.
UB fell behind, 37-20, but wouldn’t fold. Sophomore quarterback Joe Licata, who played a fine game in difficult circumstances, feathered a 25-yard pass to Devin Campbell, who narrowly missed scoring the TD. Licata made his one big mistake of the day, fumbling the snap on fourth-and-1.
That was it for any fanciful upset dreams. Just the same, it was an encouraging performance by the Bulls, one that can serve as a steppingstone to bigger things. Licata, the Williamsville South product, looks poised and ready to lead the offense. Alex Neutz and Branden Oliver should have big years in the MAC. The defense adjusted well after the rough start, and it won’t see this sort of speed in conference play.
And of course, there’s Mack, the best defensive player in the MAC and one of the best in the nation. He was blowing up on the NFL message boards Saturday. Lou Tepper, UB’s veteran defensive coordinator, said it reminded him of a guy who was at Virginia Tech when he coached there, a player who burst into prominence late in college — Bruce Smith.
When you have a player that good, you should be a title contender. Quinn, who got a contract extension after winning nine games in three years, needs to capitalize on a team with Mack, Oliver and Neutz as seniors. The Bulls aren’t terribly deep. But when you have a player like Mack, you have a shot in the MAC.