Going into the 2018 season, junior wide receiver Austin Mack was pegged by many as the next “go-to guy” in the Ohio State offense.
With the amount of short-yardage receivers that serviced the type of offense former Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett ran, including redshirt senior receiver Parris Campbell and redshirt junior K.J. Hill, Mack, with his vertical ability, seemed to compliment the new player behind center, redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
Through the first two games of the season, Haskins and Mack met that expectation. He was targeted nine times, bringing in eight catches for 89 yards against Oregon State and Rutgers, respectively.
That same expectation seemed like it was going to continue during the first drive of Saturday night’s game against TCU. Mack brought in two targets for 64 yards, adding a 48-yard reception to bring Ohio State into the red zone for the first time against the Horned Frogs.
Then, something happened.
Haskins looked back to what had been his most reliable receiver up to that point in the end zone, a 3-yard slant route across the middle of the field. With an open opportunity, Haskins fired, throwing the ball to a receiver who was known for his hands.
The ball hit Mack in his gloves and bounced into the turf.
Possibly viewed a a fluke for a receiver known as having one of the surest hands in the receiver room, Haskins targeted Mack again on a 2nd-and-16 in the first drive of the second quarter. Another target, another drop.
This happened two more times. Mack, who had brought in eight of nine targets in his first two games, recorded four drops in nine targets against TCU.
As an older player in the wide receiver room and one of the team captains for the Ohio State offense, Campbell took it upon himself to be there for Mack, to make sure he was still there mentally despite his lack of success.
“All of the guys, we were just telling him that at the end of the day, you just have to let it go,” Campbell said. “We need every single person on the team. We knew it was going to be a four-quarter fight and at the end of the day, we needed to clear his head and I think he moved on from that.”
But Haskins knows who Mack is as a receiver. With a close relationship off the field as his roommate, the redshirt sophomore quarterback said he was going to continue to target Mack, continue to trust his receiver even through the trouble.
“There are going to be plays you mess up. I’m going to keep coming to you though, throwing you the ball,” Haskins said. “It was hard for him having those drops like that in key moments for that game, but he kept pushing. I relied on him in the big moments and he came through for me.”
Acting head coach and offensive coordinator Ryan Day thought the same thing, saying Mack is usually a “reliable guy” with his hands.
Even without the success he is expected to have, Day said Mack is not the kind of player that the Ohio State offense can give up on.
“When you go into a fight, sometimes you are going to be hit and when you get hit, you can’t flinch,” Day said. “We didn’t flinch, you know, we kept putting Austin back in there and then he dropped one and he came back in and he made a catch and then he made another catch.”
Mack finished the day with four catches on nine targets for 84 yards, the most yards he has recorded in a single game since Oct. 28 when he had 90 yards on six catches against Penn State.
Day said he knows who Mack is as a receiver: a vertical deep threat who compliments his quarterback very nicely in the passing game. One misstep in that does not change Day’s overall view of him.
“We believe in our guys, we know what we see every day in practice,” Day said. “We trust that some days, you know, guys are going to put one in the ground and we don’t like that, but we believe in our guys and when things don’t go well, we have to stick together.”