When University of Akron running back Jawon Chisolm picked up 2 yards and converted a fourth-and-1 deep in Central Florida territory in the first quarter, someone with an itchy trigger finger in the end zone set off fireworks.
It was hard to tell whether that was football’s version of a Freudian slip.
Was it an exclamation point on the departure of coach Rob Ianello and his plodding offense, which struggled at times the past two years to cross the 50?
Was it a case of jumping the gun, thinking Chisolm was headed for the end zone?
Or was it merely a case of an exuberant UA employee mistakenly thinking it was the Zips’ initial first down, when it was really their third?
The fireworks operator got two more chances. When sophomore L.T. Smith caught a 13-yard scoring pass from Dalton Williams with 11:28 left in the third quarter, it marked the Zips’ first touchdown in a season opener since 2009, when J.D. Brookhart was in charge against Penn State. In the 2-22 Ianello era, they produced only a field goal against Syracuse and were shut out at Ohio State.
The Knights still spoiled Terry Bowden’s return to Division I (aka the Football Bowl Subdivision) with a 56-14 victory.
But those who saw Bowden’s no-huddle spread offense run by gunslinger Williams, a fifth-year senior transfer from Stephen F. Austin, went away with hope for this season and for the future. Bowdenball is light years ahead of Ianeptitude.
That included former UA coach Gerry Faust, who hired Bowden in 1986 to be the Zips’ quarterbacks coach.
“It takes time,” Faust said. “They’re going to be OK. I’ve seen a lot of good things out there. Just got to have patience, that’s the key.”
Bowden had great day
Bowden was upbeat about the start, despite his team’s mistakes.
“It’s been a great day,” Bowden said. “There’s a lot more anxiety that all coaches have in the first season coaching a team that was 1-11 two years in a row and all we’ve done is practice against each other. You don’t have any way of comparing where you are until you line up and play somebody. I’ll be shocked if Central Florida is not a good team this year. They were physically more talented than us.
“But the day was great, the atmosphere, getting it started. No matter what happened in this game, it is the start of our push of turning this program around. As long as our kids played hard and did the best they could, that was the baseline where we have to begin from.”
Bowden, who won a national title at Auburn during his six seasons there in the 1990s, knew before the game his Zips, 23½-point underdogs, were in trouble athletically against the Knights. UCF’s 2010 enrollment of (56,106) was the eighth-largest in the country, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics, topping Ohio State’s 56,054. Coached by George O’Leary, formerly at Georgia Tech, the Knights are receiving votes in the Associated Press and the USA Today polls.
Bowden’s Zips didn’t have the muscle on defense to stop the run and his special teams had issues, and not just the fact that the kicker and punter were making their college debuts. Combine three lost fumbles, two inside the 10, an interception and a lack of a running game and that spelled doom.
It will be interesting to see how the Zips respond next week at Florida International, which went 8-5 last season and lost to Marshall in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl.
Fans’ support great
It will also be interesting to see if the fans will warm to Bowden by Sept. 15, when the Zips return home to face Morgan State. The announced crowd was 12,616, but only the grassy hill was packed. The moon, one day away from full, rising over the east side of the stadium would have made a stunning photo for next year’s media guide if there had been anyone packing the visitors’ side except in the AK Rowdies section.
It was a beautiful evening, 81 degrees. There was only one area high school game of note. UA’s clever marketing department found a way to draw in fans who tweeted with the hashtag #ZipsGameday, posting their messages and photos on the Jumbotron. Beer is being sold at the 30,000-seat stadium for the first time.
Bowden didn’t seem discouraged that the place wasn’t packed.
“The fans were great. I don’t want them to give up. We’re going to play hard,” Bowden said. “We’re going to win some ball games, but were going to get thumped some.
“That’s why I encourage people to buy season tickets, I don’t want people who’s going to jump off ship. If you buy the whole package, you’ve got to come for the whole show. This team will get better.”
It will take time for Bowden to upgrade the talent. But there was progress. The program seems to be moving in the right direction.
As the Zips entered the locker room, a fan stood above the door’s entrance, shouting encouragement.
“That was a better effort than last year,” the man said. “We’re better.”
That was the theme of the evening, no matter what the scoreboard below the man said.