Four games into the season, eight Buckeye receivers had already caught touchdown passes.
From true freshmen Garrett Wilson and Jameson Williams to sophomore tight end Jeremy Ruckert and even third-string running back Marcus Crowley, a myriad of options all found themselves on the receiving end of a touchdown toss. Established senior starters like K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor had hauled in their share too –– with one exception.
Austin Mack entered Saturday with just seven catches for no more than 27 yards in a game and no touchdowns.
“It’s hard not to get frustrated,” Mack said. “Especially for me as a last-year guy, you’re not gonna come around a lot of opportunities.”
That opportunity came for Mack against Nebraska on Saturday, as a trio of catches gave him a touchdown, his most yardage in 10 games and proof that he hasn’t been forgotten in the Ohio State offense.
Mack missed the final six games of the 2018 season with a foot injury, and thus a bulk of potential targets from Dwayne Haskins in the country’s No.1 passing offense.
Upon reintegrating himself into the 2019 scheme with a new starter under center, Mack received just nine targets in his first four games.
With Ohio State winning its first four games by an average margin of 44.5 points, head coach Ryan Day offered an alternative explanation for Mack’s lack of looks.
“That’s just one of those things where he didn’t play in the second half,” Day said. “He hasn’t played in some of those games. And so really if you’ve only played one half of football for four games, the numbers maybe aren’t as high. But I think those guys understand that, and their time is coming real fast.”
It looked as though Mack’s time had come against Miami (Ohio) when Fields launched a 20-yard pass to the end zone in his direction. Mack came down with it, but his celebration quickly turned to a demonstrative display of disappointment when the score was called back for a holding penalty.
“It sucks, but you just hope you can get another one come your way,” he said.
Another one came Mack’s way the following week, as a 38-yard hookup with Fields in the first quarter looked to be a surefire catch and run touchdown, but a slightly inaccurate pass led Mack to trip and fall after the reception.
“He owes me one on that one for sure, because I felt like I was the only person over there,” Mack said. “Could’ve just put it right here, would’ve been easy. He made it a little hard for me, but it’s cool.”
The pair would finally get it right in the second quarter though, as Fields looked for him on his first read, and Mack reached back and hauled in the 18-yard score despite heavy contention from the defender.
Nebraska redshirt junior cornerback Dicaprio Bootle came down with partial possession of the ball, but Mack wasn’t going to let go until he knew he’d secured the score.
His 66 yards on the night were the fourth-best of his Buckeye career, but even before the breakthrough performance, Mack was not lamenting watching teammates make plays.
When Williams scored his first Buckeye touchdown on a 61-yarder against Miami, Mack was animated on the sideline in support.
Even if the Indiana native continues to be the second or third look for Fields this year, he cited former wide receiver Terry McLaurin as an example of another player with deceivingly low numbers that may have hidden his true potential.
McLaurin had just 35 catches in his final Ohio State season before going on to become a third-round NFL Draft pick in April, having already scored three touchdowns for the Washington Redskins this season.
Before he can join McLaurin, though, Mack must stay in the moment and wait for more opportunities.
“It’s my last year, no matter how the outcome, being able to be out on the field as a Buckeye, it’s great. Eventually, it’s going to be gone, so I’m just trying to cherish as many moments as I can,” Mack said.