AKRON, Ohio – Jalen McKie is far from an imposing figure, but his smile could have lit up a ballroom after the biggest performance of his collegiate career Thursday.
Coach Rod Carey found McKie postgame outside of the visitors’ locker room at Akron and gave him a hug.
“I’m proud of you,” Carey said after the embrace.
Standing at 5-foot-7, 169 pounds, the redshirt freshman cornerback has figured into the rotation more as the season has wore on and occupies a critical role in the secondary.
“They trusted me to put me out on the field even though I’m a walk-on,” McKie said. “They trusted me to make plays, and that’s what I did tonight.”
McKie actually was a target Akron tried to exploit Thursday night.
Carey knew that Akron quarterback Kato Nelson and the Zips’ offense tried to go after McKie’s side of the field away from Huskies cornerback Jalen Embry.
“He’s been in the rotation all year. He’s been ready to go. Shoot, he played a lot in every game we’ve played in, so there’s a lot of confidence within him, and they were picking on him,” Carey said. “They were going after him, probably because Jalen Embry was playing so good on the other side, but he finally put his foot in the ground and said enough was enough.”
Enough in this case was McKie’s first career interception, a fluid snag as McKie jumped the attempted pass between Zips backup quarterback Alex Ramart and Andre Williams. He raced along the Akron sideline and the 23-yard tip-toeing return for a touchdown sent the Huskies’ sideline into a frenzy.
The moment was ready-made for McKie, who jumped the pass because of what he saw in game film.
“I studied [Williams]; I noticed he was their go-to receiver and caught a lot of balls for them this year, and he was my key.”
“It’s a credit to the kid and our coaches and all of us that we just believe the work we do in the week is going to pay off, and that is one small example that it did,” Carey said. “He saw it. Now, he was nervous early in the game. He was giving it up and then came back and got his feet under him.”
It was Embry from across the field, who raced over and lifted McKie into the air in celebration.
Before that, McKie had the ball plop into his waiting arms on what would have been a game-tying extra point, as Ben Leroy’s blocked PAT instead went the other way for two points and a 29-26 NIU lead with 2:54 left in the third.
The returned PAT was the first for the Huskies since a 19-16 win at Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2003.
For good measure, McKie intercepted a Ramart pass on Akron’s final possession of the night, again on a Ramart throw toward the sideline.
McKie’s father, a 9-year NFL veteran with the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Bears, New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens, will be best remembered by some as a fullback on the 2006 Bears Super Bowl team and perhaps by others for opening up holes for Matt Forte, all after going undrafted out of Temple.
Now, the younger McKie, from Gurnee, has the chance to build a career on the humble beginnings associated with being a walk-on.
On Thursday night, thinking of pops back at home was enough to glow in the moment.
“He watched me at home on TV tonight,” McKie said with a grin.
“1st College Points!! Not a TD worth 2 points but a TD in Dads Book!!,” Jason McKie said in a post on Twitter after the PAT runback.
Over the game’s next quarter-and-a-half, the elder McKie had plenty more to cheer.