A special play by a special player
Mack’s interception helps keep Bulls unbeaten in conference play
Published: Saturday, October 26, 2013
Updated: Sunday, October 27, 2013 17:10
In any matchup between two closely ranked Mid-American Conference teams, there is usually one turning-point play – one play that both teams can examine after the game and say, “That’s the one that decided who won this game.”
In Buffalo’s game at Kent State Saturday, that play came with less than a minute remaining in the first half. The Bulls were up 13-7, but they looked lethargic and Kent State was gaining momentum. The Golden Flashes had matriculated down the field and were 14 yards from pay dirt.
In the past, this type of situation has been the moment Bulls fans have analyzed with depressed sighs after another crushing loss – This is where we blew it; this was the game.
But on Saturday, Khalil Mack stuck out one of his gigantic hands and reminded Buffalo fans one of the reasons this year is different: Because UB has him.
Mack snared Colin Reardon’s pass with one hand and returned it 45 yards.
“Well the fact is, I use two hands for most of my catches,” said star receiver Alex Neutz, who is known for his sure hands. “This dude just puts his paw in the air and snags it.”
The ball looked like it stuck to his hand – like he had glue on that paw.
“I was super surprised, man,” Mack said.
He never played receiver. Perhaps his soft hands come from his days as a rebound-snaring forward on his high school basketball team. On the runback, he looked like the fastest player on the field until Kent running back Trayion Durham caught him from behind.
It was just another example of Mack performing an athletic feat unusual for any player in the MAC.
Here’s the short story for anyone who hasn’t caught Mack Madness this season: The Bulls’ senior linebacker is a projected top-10 pick in the next NFL Draft. That might not be important to big-time programs, but Buffalo has never had a player go higher than the fourth round. He is, in many ways, an anomaly.
I hope people in Buffalo aren’t getting tired of hearing about Mack, because the noise is not going to fade. As long as he keeps pulling off plays like the one-handed pick, scouts will continue packing the press box at UB games (the Giants, Patriots, Ravens, Texans and Steelers were at Kent State Saturday).
I firmly believe Mack is the greatest player in UB history. And the senior leader is much of the reason Buffalo is now 6-2 (4-0 MAC).
Who would have thought the Bulls would look this strong after they barely won a five-overtime game against FCS squad Stony Brook to improve to 1-2? It sure didn’t seem likely.
The Bulls have emerged as a legitimate contender in the MAC through four conference games, though, for a number of different reasons – Joe Licata’s development as a confident starting quarterback; the defense’s ferocious, well-balanced attack; the new gameday environment at UB Stadium that has more fans than ever in the seats.
Buffalo’s best player, however, has been the biggest factor in its rebound.
Even if you don’t care about Buffalo being bowl eligible for the first time since 2008 (the International Bowl year), you should care about seeing a stud like Mack wearing a State University of New York at Buffalo uniform.
Head coach Jeff Quinn has called Mack a once-in-a-lifetime talent, the best he has seen in his 30 years of coaching. I can’t argue with the superlatives.
“Mack, man, what God does in him amazes me,” said senior running back Branden Oliver, who finished with 31 carries for 185 yards and four touchdowns – the most by a UB player since the school joined Division 1A in 1999.
There have been countless times this year that other reporters and I have broken out in laughter, chuckling at some egregious play Mack has made. There were many of those moments Saturday.
It’s a laughter that questions, “Is there anything this guy can’t do?” Well, there is one thing: He had a streak come to an end Saturday when he didn’t take his interception all the way to the end zone.
Last week, after the Bulls’ 32-3 win at home against UMass, Mack was asked during the press conference about his interception return for a touchdown (that was also the turning-point moment in that game). He said he was going to remind his teammates that he was three for three – as in, he had returned all three interceptions in his career for a touchdown.
In 2011, he returned an interception for a touchdown against Stony Brook that was nullified by an excessive celebration penalty. He was counting that play as one of the three, so I asked if he really thinks that counts.
“Shh,” he whispered into the mic. “Don’t tell nobody.”
Sorry, Khalil. Nothing about your game is a secret to anyone any more.