TOLEDO: What began as a season of optimism for the University of Akron football team ended with a hard-fought, nationally televised game against the Toledo Rockets on Tuesday night in the Glass Bowl.
The Zips shook off the malaise that led to a loss to Massachusetts 10 days ago to at least give the Rockets a run for their money.
Despite the absence of the Rockets’ starting quarterback, Terrance Owens, and his backfield mate running back, David Fluellen, the Zips lost 35-23. Owens’ replacement, senior Austin Dantin, connected on 29-of-35 passes for 327 yards, five touchdowns and an interception.
The Rockets also got a surprise when UA coach Terry Bowden looked to his bench early and decided it was time to get a look at the future of the quarterback position for his team. Backup quarterback Kyle Pohl replaced starter Dalton Williams at 6:34 in the first quarter with the Zips leading 3-0.
Pohl sparked an offense that had played listlessly in recent weeks. He showed little signs of rust and, more importantly, he showed all the signs of a leader.
“Kyle really responded well,” Bowden said. “He made a couple of nice throws and a couple of mistakes. His running ability is going to help us get out of problems.”
Pohl led the Zips to their first touchdown, marching them 81 yards on 14 plays and completing 6-of-8 passes for 55 yards. The key play in the drive came on a third-and-8 on the Rockets’ 13-yard line. Given the entire left side of the field, he didn’t hesitate to run for the first down, showing tremendous athleticism as he tip-toed down the sideline to avoid going out of bounds. A play later, Jawon Chisholm scored to give the Zips a 10-0 lead.
“It’s always good to get that in-game action where you can get the emotions and the speed,” Pohl said. “Hopefully, get all the freshman business out of the way.”
The Rockets roared back to score 14 unanswered points on the UA defense after the Zips had shown some resolve early in the game.
The problem was Toledo’s ability to hit big plays, especially in its go-ahead drive. The Zips had the Rockets in a third-and-17 at their own 10-yard line but allowed them to convert on a screen pass that gained 18. Several plays later, Dantin found backup running back David Pasquale over the middle at the UA 35, and he carried the ball the rest of the way for the touchdown.
Another problem came on a call that might haunt Bowden for the offseason. He chose to go for it on fourth-and-goal from Toledo’s 16-yard line instead of going for what would have been a 33-yard field goal for kicker Robert Stein.
The Rockets gave up 45 yards in penalties to help move the Zips down to the 2-yard line, but they were unable to punch it in. The field goal could have cut Toledo’s lead to 21-20.
Bowden admitted that is where they lost the game.
“I didn’t want to be down one,” he said. “I wanted to be up. I didn’t think down one was much more fun and I thought at that point the players would be excited. I thought we needed a boost.”
It would have given the Zips some momentum, an advantage that neither team had seized in the second half until the Rockets scored on a 2-yard touchdown pass at 9:56 of the fourth quarter.
The Zips still might have reason to be hopeful for next season. Pohl showed flashes in the first half, but looked raw in the second, finding himself harried for much of the time.
The loss completed the Zips’ third consecutive one-win season.
“We’re not strong enough to be a winning team,” Bowden said.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.