Cincinnati has one of the great comeback stories in college football, and we’re not talking about the No. 23 Bearcats being nationally ranked for the first time since 1976.
Ben Mauk has been Cincinnati’s catalyst only a season after suffering what was considered a career-threatening injury. In Wake Forest’s second game, Mauk fractured the humerus – the bone that attaches the elbow to the shoulder – and tore the labrum on his right (throwing) arm.
In separate surgeries not even a year ago, Mauk had a titanium plate and eight titanium screws attached to the bone, and three anchor screws to the labrum.
“It was a pretty intense injury,” Mauk said. “In my mind, from the support of my family, I didn’t have any doubts I’d play again. I wasn’t so sure I’d be able to play again, but I was going to make every push, every effort to get back on the field.”
It wasn’t a matter of if, but where.
When redshirt freshman Riley Skinner rallied the Demon Deacons to the Atlantic Coast Conference title and Orange Bowl, Mauk was happy for his school but knew his days as Wake Forest’s starter were numbered.
“It was frustrating for me because I couldn’t be out on the field,” Mauk said, “but I was excited for the rest of my teammates because they went on to achieve the success we wanted.”
Meantime, Mauk was looking to take advantage of a since-rescinded NCAA rule that allows players who earn their undergraduate degree in four years to transfer for their final season to attend graduate school.
Guess where Mauk wanted to go?
“At that time, I wanted to go to Pittsburgh,” Mauk said. “Things didn’t work out. I couldn’t contact them because I was still at Wake Forest.”
Mauk, a Kenton, Ohio, native, was familiar with Pitt after attending its seven-on-seven passing camps in high school. He discussed the possibility of a transferr to Pitt with several friends at Pitt, including former Big 33 teammate Mike McGlynn, a good friend.
“Me and Mike talked about it for a long time,” Mauk said. “It was something where (per NCAA rules) I wasn’t allowed to talk to any college. It was frustrating. I would have liked to see what would have happened at Pittsburgh, but I’m happy at Cincinnati.”
In hindsight, Mauk would have been perfect for Pitt, providing a one-year stopgap that could have allowed either junior Bill Stull or freshman Pat Bostick (if not both) to redshirt, or at least provide a seasoned veteran to fill in when Stull injured his thumb in the opener.
Mauk said his choices came down to Alabama and Cincinnati, where his father, Kenton coach Mike Mauk, had contacted an old friend. Being that Cincy was less than two hours from his hometown and was lacking a quality quarterback, Mauk’s decision was a no-brainer.
Mauk is something of an Ohio prep legend after setting national passing records at Kenton High School by completing 1,105 of 1,931 passes for 17,534 career yards, including 6,540 yards passing as a senior. (To put that in perspective, consider that Adam DiMichele holds the WPIAL all-time passing record with 6,741 yards).
There was one problem: Mauk still wasn’t fully recovered from his Oct. 27, 2006, shoulder surgery. He was still an unknown quantity after missing spring drills. He wasn’t able to throw until training camp in August.
“The team accepted me,” Mauk said. “I wasn’t able to participate in drills during the summer time, but I developed relationships off the field. When I started practice, it was an easy transition because I had already established relationships a leader has to.”
Mauk quickly proved a perfect fit in new coach Brian Kelly’s shotgun-style spread offense, similar to Kenton High’s passing attack and to Wake Forest’s run game.
In only seven games, Mauk is already closing in on his career marks in 10 starts at Wake Forest. Where Mauk completed 148 of 273 passes (54 percent) for 1,522 yards with four touchdowns and 10 interceptions at Wake Forest, he already has completed 102 of 162 passes (63 percent) for 1,358 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions.
“It’s been an easy transition,” Mauk said. “I’m surrounded by a good group of guys with great team chemistry. They had something special last season. I’m fortunate to be a small part of what’s going on this season.’
Mauk’s actually a big part of the River City Revival.
“Ben’s another leader, a very seasoned quarterback,” Cincinnati junior cornerback Mike Mickens said. “He knows what to expect from a defensive point of view. That helps us out a lot, Ben being in there.”
With the play-calling of Kelly and his longtime offensive coordinator, Jeff Quinn – a sidekick at both Grand Valley State and Central Michigan – Mauk is flourishing in Cincinnati’s high-octane offense. The Bearcats are averaging 40.6 points and 447.4 yards a game.
“He has made that offense go,” Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. “It’s a completely different look from a year ago, not only a change in philosophy but just as important or more important is the play of the quarterback.
“He does a great job of staying alive in the pocket,” Wannstedt added. “There’s two types of quarterbacks: There’s quarterbacks who scramble and they lose vision of the field, and quarterbacks who scramble and find receivers. Ben Roethlisberger can find receivers down the field when he’s under pressure; this kid does a great job of that. He makes a lot of his plays when he’s on the move.”
Mauk isn’t much of a threat to run, but is effective when he does. He has 38 carries for 168 yards, but has also been sacked a number of times and lost 71 yards.
“One of the things I try to do is stay in the pocket as long as I can and make things happen,” Mauk said. “If the pocket were to collapse, the defense has to make a decision whether to come up and tackle me or defend the pass.”
That’s bad news for Pitt’s defense, which has been shredded by mobile quarterbacks the past two seasons. In all likelihood, Mauk is better than Connecticut’s D.J. Hernandez and Navy’s Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, who both had career games against the Panthers.
“He has really good vision and makes a lot of plays himself,” Pitt redshirt junior middle linebacker Scott McKillop said of Mauk. “He’ll duck out of pressure another quarterback might not have done and he has good vision downfield. Usually whenever you see a quarterback scramble, sometimes the defenses and linebackers tend to come up. With this quarterback, you can’t lose your receiver. You’ve got to come on them.”
You can’t help but wonder what would have come of this season had Mauk transferred to Pitt instead of Cincinnati. Would the Panthers be 6-1 and nationally ranked? Would they be 10-point favorites instead of underdogs? We’ll never know.
Pitt can only hope Mauk plays his worst game.
“Ben’s a good friend of mine and I wish the best for him, except for this week,” McGlynn said. “I hope he turns the ball over four or five times, throws a couple interceptions.”
Only then would Mauk look like a Pitt quarterback.