So Akron has been in contention for the worst team in FBS for the past few years. What has been the problem? Is there hope for the Zips?
There's a lot of blame to go around, but many Akron fans place the blame directly on ex-head coach Rob Ianello. Ianello came to Akron four years ago with a pedigree as a great recruiter with no head coaching experience. His first year was a disaster, as he went 1-11 with a loss to FCS Gardner-Webb. Next year wasn't any better, as Ianello tallied another 1-11 season, with his final game a 68-19 thrashing at the hands of an average Western Michigan team. The coaching was terrible, but what was worse was the attitude that Ianello had. From what I've heard, not many of the players liked him at all, and his smug demeanor turned a lot of people away.
Probably the thing that was the most disappointing during the Ianello era was the lack of quality players that the coaching staff brought in. Yes, it's tough to recruit to a program that hadn't been to a bowl since 2005 and had no real history in Division 1. But, his pedigree as this master recruiter made the Akron faithful hopeful he could bring solid recruits in. The brand new $60 million on-campus stadium should have made things easy, as combined with the new-ish indoor practice facility, Akron had arguably the best facilities in the MAC. On top of that, even people from Michigan know how fertile the recruiting grounds are in Ohio, and Northeastern Ohio specifically (not a dig, I promise). Apparently Ianello didn't have great relationships with the high school coaches in the area, and that contributed to the lack of talent coming through the Zips program. Ianello had to go with transfers and junior college players just to have enough on the team, and those guys hardly ever panned out. It's hard to place all of the blame on one guy, but the facts (or alleged facts, if that's a phrase) speak for themselves.
The thing that Terry Bowden has done right away is connect with local talent. He hit Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and the surrounding areas hard for talent, with some impressive players coming out of his recruiting classes. Now, the record from last year was bad (1-11, again) and it probably won't be much better this season. But the thing is, the Zips have been a whole hell of a lot more competitive than the Ianello teams that preceded him. Ianello's Power-I offense was awful, unwatchable, and just didn't work. Combined with a terrible defense, most of the games were over by halftime. In Ianello's last season he lost to Akron's main rival Kent State 35-3. In Bowden's first season, the Zips were competitive throughout the game but lost it near the end of the game. The final was 35-24, but it felt a lot closer than that.
It's funny you mention the word hope, because I wrote about that last year. In the article, I mention how the Zips football team has a whole new identity. Gone is the Ianello rushing attack, here to stay is the Bowden spread offense that seems to be the norm throughout the conference. Akron's offensive statistics improved exponentially, with (basically) the same players. Also, just having a head coach have the last name "Bowden" is huge. Although current high school seniors may not know a whole lot of the Bowden family, assuredly their parents do. They know the Bowden family is synonymous with college football, and that ultimately leads to some credibility in the program. Obviously he needs to win to stay on the Akron sidelines, but I think he was the perfect hire. Once he gets his players in Akron uniforms, combined with the overall state of the MAC year in and out, he can make the program relevant again.
Akron has just over 600 yards of offense so far this season and is average nationally in yards/pass attempt (7.1) while nearly in the triple digit rankings in yards/carry (3.4). What do you expect from the Akron offense against Michigan's defense that shut out CMU two weeks ago but gave up some yards vs. Notre Dame?
Akron's spread offense is the main set they'll run plays out of. The quarterback is always in the shotgun, save for goal line situations. The bad part about that is, the offensive line is pretty poor. James Madison was able to keep pressure on the quarterback all night last week, and that's an FCS defense. I expect Michigan to do pretty much the same against Akron. If Kyle Pohl, the opening day starter, gets any kind of pressure on him he's likely to start making mistakes. He can run a little bit, but if he only has a few seconds to throw it'll be a long day. I would think the Michigan game-plan would be to blitz early and often to try to force Pohl into a few easy interceptions. If Pohl starts making mistakes like last week, backup Nick Hirschman, a Colorado transfer, will likely take over. In my opinion, he's been a little more impressive this year, leading the offense on two touchdown drives in the first two games. But, he was hurt celebrating a touchdown last week and may not be able to play this week.
To combat this, I'd think Akron would want to run many short routes and dump-off to the tailback Jawon Chisholm. Chisholm is great in space, and is Akron's best player. I just don't think with the talent on the Michigan defense that Akron will be able to do much more than a few field goals or a garbage time touchdown. I'd put Akron and Central Michigan on the same level, so I'd expect pretty much a carbon copy game as that one went.
Statistically, Akron had one of the worst defenses in the country last year. This year doesn't seem to be on a good track, as Akron has already given up an average of 487 yards/game. What are the biggest weaknesses with the Zips defense?
The secondary is awful, and that's not good news if you're going up against Devin Gardner. Akron has a penchant for giving up huge plays, and the secondary is usually the culprit. I can see Jeremy Gallon tearing up this defense, as the Zips do not tackle well and the coverage is average at best. Akron's best hope is to use pressure from the defensive line to try to force Gardner into bad throws, or just to get him out of the pocket.
Give me one player on offense and one on defense that Michigan fans should know about before the game.
On offense the primary playmaker is Jawon Chisholm. He'll be the starting running back and is a pseudo-receiver in five-wide sets. If the defense gives him any space he'll pounce on it, and he's quick too. The only knock on him is he has a small fumbling problem, but that hasn't reared its head this year.
The defensive line is probably the strength of this team. Nico Caponi leads the team in sacks with three, and the other lineman have stepped up well. But the player on defense I'm most excited about is linebacker Justin March. He was all over the field against JMU, and currently leads the team in tackles. March needs to play brilliantly again for the Zips defense to be competitive.
While the odds seem stacked against Akron, stranger things have happened. What are three things that have to happen for Akron to pull the upset?
A good start is paramount to the Zips staying in this game. The more confidence they have, the closer this game will be. The first quarter is probably the most important quarter of the game for the Zips, as they'll need to put up a touchdown or field goal and hold the Wolverines to one touchdown or field goal. If Michigan jumps out to a 14-0 lead early, it'll be over by halftime.
Akron also needs to keep turnovers at a minimum. Turnovers kill upset bids, especially when they are in your own territory. Pohl/Hirschman need to make smart decisions, not force things and generally keep the ball moving. Learning to throw the ball away more in the face of pressure should also be something stressed to Pohl for this one.
Lastly, the Zips really just need to play carefree. There's likely less than a 5% chance they win, so why not take some chances? Throw some trick plays out there, try something different. Go for fourth downs in Michigan territory regardless. The advantage Akron has in this one is that Michigan has everything to lose. That doesn't mean go nuts, but take chances they wouldn't normally take in a conference game. Who knows? Maybe this one will be interesting into the fourth quarter.
How do you see this game going, and do you have any predictions?
I see this game going very similarly to the Central Michigan game. If Michigan isn't up 30-3 or so by halftime I'd be surprised. I'd like to see the Zips perform well against Michigan's backups when that time comes, and keep it at least respectable by the end of the game. I'll say Akron gets a few gimme touchdowns at the end and Michigan wins 49-17.