For the first time in forever, there’s a hopeful feeling in the Rubber City. But there’s still a long way to go.
The Akron Zips are 0-3 on the season after a tidy loss to Kent State on Wednesday night in the Wagon Wheel rivalry game, but that doesn’t mean they were lacking in positive signs.
The Zips, throughout the young season, have shown a great increase in growth from a genuinely terrible 2019 season. The improvement isn’t necessarily night-and-day; they’re still 0-3 and have lsot every game by double-digits, after all. But unlike the 2019 season, the Zips look like an actualy competitive football team on a consistent basis.
In all three games, the Zips have made teams sweat, whether taking an early lead against WMU in Week 1, or taking Ohio down to the wire in Week 2. In Week 3’s game against Kent State, they were seconds away from taking a tied game in to the locker rooms for halftime.
This Zips team, even through all the trials and tribulations of last season, and the struggles they’ve face to get out of the basement this year, hasn’t lost the plot. They’re still fighting and still showing the promise of development, which is pivotal for a young team in a seaosn which mostly won’t count.
Here’s five takeaways we had from their Week 3 game:
Teon Dollard, the talisman
The story of Teon Dollard has been a wild one to follow.
A JUCO running back from Independence [KS] CC (the second of three football teams featured on Netflix’s “Last Chance U”), Dollard wasn’t even on the Zips’ initial radar, as they went to Kansas to recruit other players on the roster. Eventually, they noticed Dollard’s work ethic and game tape, and offered him a scholarship. With Akron being the only FBS team to offer the three-star prospect, he accepted and was an early enrollee.
The gamble has paid off so far, as Dollard has rushed for over 100 yards in the last two games, and picked up four touchdowns vs. Kent State’s defense in Week 3 to go along with his 202 yards on 28 carries. In Week 2 against Ohio, his breakout, Dollard had 165 yards on 22 carries, helping keep the Zips in close range of that game.
To put that in perspective, he had surpassed Akron’s leading rusher for all of 2019, Brandon Lee (179 yards) in two games of action. Dollard’s four touchdowns also surpassed Akron’s entire rushing touchdown production— equaling the effort at halftime!
Very clearly, this team is much better with Dollard on the field, and that has, in part, propelled them to being a lot more competitive on the field.
The offensive line is young, but capable
Akron has only one upperclassman starting along the line in senior Bryce Peterson, who moved over from guard to play cnter this past offseason. Starting along both sides of him? Four redshirt freshman, averaging 296.75 lbs and six-foot-five, incouding the behemoth left tackle Xavior Gray (six-foot-nine, 315 lb.) This unit is unbelievable young— and extremely full of potential, as they’ve shown this season.
In three games, the offensive line has pushed the pile for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns, pushing to pass the pace of 2019’s line (2,918 yards gained, 15 touchdowns.) The average offensive yards per game has also increased significantly with these changes, jumping from 243 yards per game in 2019 to 352.3 currently, showing that a full season could yield great results for the Zips.
If there’s one concern to have thus far, the line has given up five sacks in three games, already half the number of sacks given up in the whole of the 2019 season. Part of that is probably the relative youth on the line this season as opposed to last, but part of it could also come down to quarterback play (more on that later) leaving the line vulnerable.
Regardless, there’s a lot to be hopeful for along the trenches, as only the center position will graduate out of the program this season.
A game vs. Miami’s usually reliable defensive line, which will be rested after a week off due to COVID protocols, should prove to be a fascinating test.
This team misses a playmaker at quarterback
Zach Gibson is a hard worker, and it’s clear that he wants to help Akron win games. The issue is, he’s just a bit to eager to do that, tossing four interceptions in three games, as well as being fumble-prone, having already lost two fumbles in key situations so far this season.
This came to a head in Akron’s game last week, as Gibson threw a bad interception to Elvis Hines in the opening minutes of the game, then followed it up on the next drive by attempting a spin move while already in the process of being strip-tackled, fumbling the ball at the goal line. Were it not for Xavior Gray picking up the resulting fumble, the game may have gone very differently for the Zips.
Akron is not in the position to be giving points away right now, and Gibson has been a liability at best, and cripplingly bad at worst. A positive in Gibson’s box is that his struggles in the passing game have opened up the ability to run, giving Dollard a chance to shine.
But for Akron to truly go over the top, Sylvester Stallone style, they need a strong arm in the passing game to take advantage of the various athletes they have on the outside. Hell, even a marginal arm would do at this point.
Kato Nelson, the starter over the twilight of Terry Bowden’s tenure, and last year’s starter prior to injury, was suited up for Week 3, which could mean a return to the catbird seat soon. Nelson has the seniority and familiarity with the playbook which could open up parts of the offense Gibson doesn’t have access to. Nelson went 151-for-280 for 1,820 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 starts last season, so it’s certainly an option to consider, given Gibson hasn’t exactly improved from last season’s pace.
There are other potential options, too, including TJ DeShields and MyJaden Horton, Akron could look at as well. Regardless, a reliable presence at QB is an element the Zips are missing at this time which could go a long way to help.
Bubba Arslenian is an absolute unit
Look out for #27 in old gold and royal blue, because it likely means you’re in for a rough night if you cross paths with him.
Arslenian layed down the hammer on Kent State on several occasions, picking up a team-leading 15 tackles, on top of recovering Issac Vance’s muffed punt to add to what’s already been a massively impressive season for the Zips backer, who has 34 total tackles, two tackles-for-loss, two sacks and a recovered fumble (all tops on the defensive side.) The 34 tackles are nearly double of the next leading Zip (Adetutu Daranijo, 18,) and puts him as the only Akron defender to average double-digit stops per game.
Much like his fellow batterymate John Lako was the heart of the Zips defense in 2019 prior to his graduation this offseason, Arslenian has taken hold of that mantle, helping the center of the defense hold up of recent; his special teams play also cannot go by unnoticed, as it was precisely his pressure which forced the muffed punt. Not making an all-MAC team with his performance thus far would be a great disappointment.
It’s been a steadying presence for the Zips defense, which has otherwise been pourous as a young defense tries to figure itself out.
Growing pains on offense translate to the defense, too
Speaking of the defense, boy what a mess, huh?
It’s hard to pile onto Akron’s defense too much, given how barebones the roster was to begin with as we entered the season. But the numbers do eventually speak for themselves, and they’re not pretty.
Akron has given up an average of 513.7 yards and 7 touchdowns per game thus far, which aren’t necessarily the best numbers if your main job is to prevent the offense from moving down the field. The passing defense has held up all right, allowing an average of only 249 yards per game and seven touchdowns over three games, but when your rushing defense is giving up 6.4 yards per carry, why would a team ever pass over the Zips?
The offense has gotten better at ball control thanks to the emergence of Teon Dollard, which is a positive development, but they’re still turnover-prone, and against the best teams, struggle to hold on to the ball much at all, putting the defense behind the eight ball.
Akron’s main issue of contention (besides youth and depth) has been the simple lack of any form of pressure from the defensive line. The Zips only have five tackles-for-loss and four sacks on the season, with all of those statistics recorded by linebackers. Only one defensive lineman is in the Top 10 in tackles with Nazir Sy (8 tackles) coming in at #10, recording no other statistics.
Perhaps the pressure originating from defensive backs and linebackers is by design in the Arth defense, but it would be fairly helpful if the defensive trenches could contribute in a more visible fashion. It places an unfair assignment to the rest of the defense when the linemen aren’t getting home more often, as the chances of a broken assignment or a hesitation in coverage is more likely the longer the offense operates. Until that gets fixed, Akron will be facing issues preventing the opponent from moving down the field for awhile.
Akrons’ next game will be against the Miami RedHawks on Sat., Nov. 28 at noon Eastern time, with TV coverage exclusively on ESPN3.