Despite a 28-24 loss to Michigan on Sept. 14, the optimism that surrounded the University of Akron football team was evident.
The Zips came within seconds of vanquishing a storied program and completing one of the biggest upsets in college football history.
That early euphoria was nowhere to be found Saturday in UA’s 43-3 loss to Ohio. The Zips didn’t look anything like the team that took the Wolverines to the limit.
Like it or not, the challenge Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Ill., could prove equally daunting as UA takes on Northern Illinois, arguably the best team in the Mid-American Conference.
“They're 2-0 against the Big Ten,” Zips coach Terry Bowden said. “They're a Top 25 team, but so is Michigan and so is [Central] Florida. We’ve lined up with some very good football teams and Northern Illinois will be another one.”
A win against Northern Illinois, which made an appearance in the 2013 Orange Bowl, a BCS game, could allow the Zips to regain the momentum they lost since that Michigan game and the ensuing three consecutive losses.
“In big games like that, there’s not a lot of magic,” Bowden said. “It’s just going out there and having the confidence and belief in yourself so on that given day when the opportunity arises — with turnovers or whatever else — you’re ready to meet the challenge.”
After the shellacking the Zips took against the Bobcats, rejuvenation could be what they need. In the final weeks of the schedule, UA will have opportunities against currently winless Miami and UMass.
Whether Northern Illinois has the cachet of a Michigan is a matter of debate, but the program continues to gain in stature. Wins over Iowa and Purdue, although not close to the top of the Big Ten, have only enhanced the Huskies’ reputation. Beating Northern Illinois would give UA its mojo back.
Zips quarterback Kyle Pohl has said each game should be treated equally. However, there are some games that are more “equal” than others.
“When we have an opportunity to play a team that’s this good and ranked, it’s just an opportunity to show how good we are like against Michigan,” said Pohl, a sophomore who has completed 115-of-198 passes for 1,173 yards. “That’s something we’ve struggled to carry over, the momentum we picked up early in the season. It’s big obviously.”
Nose tackle Cody Grice agreed, but said the game has added importance.
“Definitely, I would definitely say it’s critical,” he said. “We’re not looking just to have a close game. We’re looking to win. If you want to word it like that, it’s definitely critical. We have a lot riding on this. We’re trying to get our streak going to get to a bowl game, so we definitely need to pull this through.”
What will that take? Pohl said that the Zips have to be meticulous on offense and defense — and get the little things done correctly.
“When we do those little things right, we’ll come out on top in those close games,” he said. “That’s what makes a difference in close games. That’s why we haven’t had the wins we want this year.”
Northern Illinois will be the fifth Zips opponent that played in a bowl game last season. The Huskies’ Orange Bowl bid was the most prestigious on the list.
The Zips’ defense has already equaled last season’s sack total with 16, including six against Bowling Green.
C.J. James update
Unfortunately for the Zips, there has been no word on senior defensive end C.J. James, who didn’t play last week against Ohio and still hasn’t had his NCAA eligibility issue cleared up. He is able to practice with the team, but cannot travel or play.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. 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.