Three plays into Ohio State’s prime time showdown with TCU, Austin Mack seemed to be on his way to a career night.
Three plays after that, he was on his way to one of the roughest halves of football in recent memory for an Ohio State wide receiver.
Mack’s night started when he picked up 16 yards on a reception on the second play of the game. On the next snap, he made a lunging grab to reel in a 48-yard bomb from Dwayne Haskins. That set up the Buckeyes with 1st-and-goal at the TCU 2.
On 3rd-and-goal, Mack got open in the back of the end zone, but dropped Haskins’ pass. The Buckeyes had to settle for a field goal.
In the second quarter, Mack dropped a 2nd-and-16 pass that would have left the Buckeyes with a manageable third down.
Just before the half, with the Buckeyes down 14-13 but driving, Mack dropped another ball that hit him right in the hands.
He wasn’t being touched by a defender on any of those plays. He just didn’t catch the ball.
Buckeye fans online were openly asking how the team could possibly continue to play him.
It was a difficult moment for the junior wideout, who is generally known for having some of the best hands in his unit, even in heavy traffic.
Had the first drop shaken Mack’s confidence? Senior wide receiver Parris Campbell said the key was to forget what had happened and focus on his next chance to make a play.
“We just told him he needed to clear his head. And I think he moved on that and actually had a big time catch later on,” Campbell said.
Mack recently told reporters that he tried to catch 10,000 passes during the offseason, even going so far as tracking the numbers on a board at the Buckeyes’ practice facility.
That hard work may have helped Mack’s teammates from losing faith in him.
“I was just saying, ‘Look. Play. If you mess up, I’m going to keep coming to you, throwing you the ball,'” said Haskins after the game. “It was hard for him having those drops like that in key moments in the game, but he kept pushing.”
Haskins’ faith in his friend and roommate was rewarded in the second half.
With the Buckeyes down 21-13 and in desperate need of offense, Mack came through. Haskins hit him for a 12-yard gain, prompting a loud cheer from the Buckeye fans in attendance.
They connected again later in the third quarter, starting off the Buckeyes’ final scoring drive.
“I relied on him again on the big moments, and he came through for me,” Haskins said.
When the Buckeyes were in one of their most dire moments in Ann Arbor in 2017, it was Mack who pulled down a 3rd-and-16 pass in traffic to keep the chains moving.
Ohio State will almost certainly need more of those moments from Mack this fall. The second half on Saturday was a good start.