Welcome to our new offseason feature, in which we’re counting down the top ten plays of the 2016 USF football season. Today, we start with number 10.
The USF fanbase approached the Cincinnati game, the Bulls’ American Athletic Conference opener, with a mindset somewhere between wariness and sheer terror. The Bulls’ defense had just been gashed to death by Dalvin Cook and Florida State, and a road game on a short week against a team that many assumed to be USF’s biggest competitor in the AAC East seemed like a huge red flag.
The Bulls wound up cruising to a 45-20 victory, but it was much nervier than the final score let on. The Bearcats went punch-for-punch with USF in the first half before a few second-half turnovers allowed the Bulls some breathing room. With the game all but put to bed at 38-20 in the fourth quarter, there was one storyline that still remained unresolved: would Marlon Mack— who’d had an uncharacteristically quiet game— be able to surpass Andre Hall as USF’s all-time career rushing leader?
If we learned anything from watching three seasons of Marlon Mack, it’s that he didn’t operate in small gestures. Everything Mack did in a USF jersey, from his very first game as a true freshman against Western Carolina, arrived with a bang. To Marlon Mack is not to squeeze between the tackles to keep the chains moving. It is to glance at the offensive line, say “to hell with this,” and bounce the run outside for 50 yards.
It seems right, then, that the carry that wound up breaking Hall’s record and cementing Mack’s name at the top of the history books wasn’t an eight-yard scamper but instead a wild, 49-yard touchdown run that saw him evade a semicircle of Bearcat defenders, juke a linebacker off the face of the planet, and find a hole ten yards downfield that most mere mortals wouldn’t even have seen, let alone evade a half-dozen black jerseys to get there.
If somehow you’ve forgotten the beauty of this play, observe at 1:32 below:
Let’s break it down:
From the above screenshot, Marlon appears to be in a bit of a pickle. He’s immediately surrounded by three players before he can even cross the line of scrimmage, and there are three other Bearcats downfield that reasonable have an angle on him. For your convenience, I’ve labelled them accordingly:
PLAYER #1 has pursued Mack from the back side of the play, and has put himself in pretty good position here. He’s not going to be able to catch Mack in a footrace, but assuming Mack gets slowed up by the linebackers near the line of scrimmage, he might be able to make a play from behind.
PLAYER #2 is in the best position of any Bearcat on the field to make the tackle. He’s read the play perfectly, and with Mack still a few yards behind the line of scrimmage, he’s angling to take the shifty halfback down for a loss.
PLAYER #3 has emerged from the scrum on the line of scrimmage and isn’t really in position to make a tackle, but he’s essentially blocked any possible escape route for Mack on the left side of the play. Marlon is boxed in.
PLAYER #4 is currently tangled up with a pulling Jeremi Hall, but if he can shed the block, he’ll be in position to make a tackle.
PLAYER #5 is blocking off the right side of the field here— if Mack tries to use his speed and stretch the play east-and-west past PLAYER #2, he’ll likely be cut off.
PLAYER #6 is entirely unblocked on the second level, and can line up the correct angle to take on Mack if the RB manages to somehow make it through the first level of defense.
Let’s skip ahead a few seconds and see what happens to each of these ill-fated defenders.
PLAYER #2, of course, is the biggest casualty of Marlon’s devastating juke. Sometimes, like Hector facing Achilles, we are met with a challenge beyond the comprehension of human strength. PLAYER #2 has met his personal Achilles, and all he can do now, as he slowly regains control of his limbs and helps himself to his feet, is thank his lucky stars that he has emerged from the confrontation with his body still intact, if not his pride.
PLAYER #1 has met a similar fate, if slightly more puzzling. Despite being directly behind Mack and thus, one would assume, immune to his misdirection, he too has lost his footing as a result of Marlon’s juke and is effectively out of the play. How this happens, I have no idea— it’s like the radiation emerging from the sheer impossibility of the juke just knocks him backwards on to his butt.
Still, Marlon isn’t out of the woods yet. PLAYER #3 is still pursuing him from the left, PLAYER #4 has shed Hall’s block and is bearing down on Mack as well, PLAYER #6 is jostling with Hall downfield, but is still in a position to make a play if he beats his man, and PLAYER #5 has evaded Rodney Adams and is closing in from the right.
JIM is a character I have chosen to introduce in this sequence. He has no bearing on the outcome of the play, but he is getting the dickens blocked out of him by Mitchell Wilcox, and is having a terrible day.
Things have gone very poorly for Cincinnati. PLAYER #5 cut too far inside and lost the edge, and with Rodney Adams serving as a barrier between the Bearcats defender and the sideline, there is zero chance that he’ll be able to get the angle on Mack. This is the first time in the entire play where we can see an actual hole opening up for Marlon.
PLAYER #3 and PLAYER #4 are now in a footrace with Marlon, and they are doomed. PLAYER #6, meanwhile, has lost his battle with Jeremi Hall rather decisively.
PLAYER #1 and PLAYER #2 are currently engaged in the football version of “Sit in the Corner and Think About What You’ve Done.” Neither player has gotten to his feet yet, and neither player is even looking in the direction of the play. Have you ever taken a test where you’ve encountered a question so ridiculously difficult that your brain’s natural reaction isn’t even to try to answer it? It just sputters out something totally unrelated like, “Jeez, it’s kind of weird how kangaroos can’t hop backwards.” This is where these two are right now. PLAYER #1 is thinking about what happened to his middle school girlfriend, and PLAYER #2 is thinking about giving up football and living out the rest of his days as a sheep.
Somehow, this day has gotten even worse for JIM.
Why was this play the best?
This play was wonderful not just because of Mack breaking the record, but because of how he did it. It was a run that by all means should have resulted in a loss, but through supernatural instincts that most FBS running backs could only dream of, Marlon finds a way to get around half of the Cincy defense for a touchdown. Given his penchant for heroics, it’s only fitting that this was the run that made Mack the king of USF running backs. It’s unlikely that USF finds a better back than Number Five for a long, long time.
Why was this play not the best?
Were this a game-clinching run, it actually might be. It’s got everything you need— the significance of Mack breaking the record, the earth-shattering juke... it’s just that the game was already well in hand by the time Marlon took this handoff. It should also be mentioned that as amazing as this run was, it wasn’t even Mack’s best of the year. More to come!