KNOXVILLE, Tenn.: About two months into his son Terry’s tenure as the University of Akron football coach, Bobby Bowden considered the chances he’d have to see the Zips in person and figured a trip to Neyland Stadium would be feasible.
“They might even be able to win that one,” the elder Bowden mused as he sat in his family room in Tallahassee, Fla., in February.
At the time, it seemed like wishful thinking from the legendary Bowden. But the 82-year-old came to the intimidating home of the Tennessee Volunteers Saturday night, sitting in the third row of UA’s lone section with his wife Ann, to provide support. He’d spoken to his son’s team in the afternoon.
The scoreboard read Tennessee 47, Akron 26. But no matter what it said, Bowden saw the Zips take a huge step towards legitimacy.
They played like they were oblivious to the fact they were 34-point underdogs.
With 2:14 left in the second quarter, the Zips led 23-20 after a 70-yard touchdown run by third-string tailback Quentin Hines, who was never touched. UT fans booed.
At halftime, the game was tied at 23. The crowd of 81,179, well below capacity of 102,455, seemed disgruntled. Even “Rocky Top” sounded a little less spirited.
UA served notice it meant business just 35 seconds into the game when cornerback Avis Commack, a senior transfer from Florida State, picked off UT quarterback Tyler Bray and returned the interception 44 yards for a score.
That seemed to wake up the Vols, perhaps as disinterested as the crowd considering the game was sandwiched between Southeastern Conference foes Florida and Georgia. But every time the Vols scored, the Zips had an answer, at least in the first two quarters.
Redshirt freshman kicker Robert Stein connected on three first-half field goals, including a career-long 45-yarder, and another early in the fourth.
UA junior cornerback Malachi Freeman, who is 5-foot-9, found himself in perhaps the biggest battle of his career with 6-foot-4 receiver Justin Hunter, who caught eight passes for 115 yards and a TD. Yet Freeman came up with several big pass breakups.
Zips quarterback Dalton Williams, the fifth-year senior transfer from Stephen F. Austin, continued to prove he’s the perfect fit for Terry Bowden’s quick-strike offense. Even when Williams missed wide-open receivers Jerrod Dillard and Marquelo Suel on UA’s second offensive series, Williams kept his poise and moved the ball on the Volunteers. Suel notched a career-high 12 receptions.
Although they allowed 633 total yards, the Zips defense also showed fire and heads-up play. None moreso than senior linebacker Kurt Mangum, who alertly fell on UT running back Rajion Neal’s fumble when sophomore safety Bre’ Ford knocked it loose with 4:20 left in the first quarter. Neal was originally ruled down, but the play was reversed on a replay review.
That seemed to give the Zips’ even more life. Even though the ensuing possession netted only 1 yard, Stein converted his 45-yarder.
UA wasn’t doomed until it surrendered 17 points in a span of 5:54 in the fourth quarter.
“I’m not happy and I’m real disappointed, but I’m awful proud of our players for coming in here and not accepting the fact they’re supposed to lose and accept a guarantee and go home,” Terry Bowden said afterwards. UA received a guarantee of at least $850,000, according to director of athletics Tom Wistrcill. “We stood foot to foot with Tennessee and punched when they punched and weaved and bobbed and all those things.
“They just had too many weapons for us and too many skill people, we couldn’t continue to match up with ‘em.”
Last week, Bowden put his folksy spin on the matchup between a team from the powerhouse SEC and his Mid-American Conference squad that had matched its 2011 win total with its first triumph of this season seven days before. He’d spent nearly six seasons coaching in the SEC at Auburn, where he went 47-17-1, but 0-2 against the Vols.
“They put their pants on the same way we do,” Bowden said during the MAC teleconference Monday. “Of course, they have to split them up the back a little bit to get their legs in.”
It was a good thing the Zips didn’t see UT’s walk-in. Even clad in suits, the Vols looked like an NFL team.
“We were playing from the short tees,” Bowden said on the MAC teleconference in reference to previous week’s foe Morgan State, which plays in what was formerly Division I-AA. “We’ve got to go back on the pro tees now.”
Bowden knew he didn’t have the athletes or the depth, but he got the Zips to believe.
“Every Saturday somebody upsets somebody. We have to go out with the mentality, ‘Why not us?’” Bowden said going into the game.
That had already happened long before the Zips took the field as Central Michigan of the MAC upset Iowa. Then Western Michigan stunned Connecticut of the Big East for the second consecutive year.
Bowden told his team of the MAC brethren’s feats and kept his foot on the accelerator with his aggressive play-calling. Even though his quarterback was playing with bruising below his ribs, Bowden allowed Williams to continue his aerial assault while mixing in the run. Williams came into this weekend tied for second in the nation in touchdown passes (10), matching the total of USC’s Matt Barkley.
“He’s played football his whole life for an opportunity to play at a place like this,” Bowden said last week of Williams, a career backup until 2012.
Williams and the rest of the Zips got more inspiration when Bobby Bowden addressed them at 3 o’clock.
“We had a chapel service so a lot of it was spiritual, but he talked about them just doing the best they can,” Terry Bowden said. “He talked about how Akron reminded him of when he went to Florida State. They were 0-11, 1-10 and 3-8 the three years before. All their big games were on the road. He had to play LSU five years on the road and two years at Ohio State. He talked about us and where he thought our program was starting to go. The kids really enjoyed it.”
The outcome wasn’t what either Bowden wanted. But it gave Terry Bowden hope that his rebuilding plan is working.
“I don’t need reassurance, but in my mind the players really do,” Bowden said. “They got beat 55-14 by Central Florida but gave up about 28 points in turnovers inside the 10. Maybe it should have been 38. The next week, FIU played Louisville down to the wire tonight, they had to come back in overtime to beat us. Then we dominate a I-AA team and we lasted about three quarters with Tennessee before they pulled away.
“I think our players are going to benefit. I don’t think they’re going to be down at all. But it does need to lead them to finishing teams off. We play conference teams that win these games a lot. But it will be a positive, there’s not a doubt in my mind.”
Bobby Bowden came to Neyland Stadium to witness what is essentially a two-fold reclamation project for UA football and for his son’s career. If the Zips’ effort Saturday night was any indication, both may be accomplished long before the proud papa ever dreamed.