Call it University of Akron coach Terry Bowden’s three steps to winning.
First, you lose big. Then, you lose close ones. Then a team starts to win. For now, it looks as if the Zips have moved quickly to part two.
With a 1-5 football team and the situation not looking up, no one would question if there were a lack of morale permeating the Zips locker room, especially given the toughness of a couple of those losses. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Zips, who play Ohio (6-0, 2-0) in a Mid-American Conference game Saturday.
“[The coaches] have to keep up morale,” Bowden said this week. “When I stop seeing that sparkle in their eye, I’ll know the tough losses have gotten to them.”
The sparkle remains and shows little sign of dimming.
“We’re all together on this. It’s a great group of guys who have a lot of character,” said quarterback Dalton Williams, who won two conference championships as a member of the Stephen F. Austin football team, after practice Thursday. “They learn what they need from the losses and move on.”
That’s not to say there isn’t a hint of disappointment.
“This isn’t where we expected to be 1-5,” said linebacker Troy Gilmer, a fifth-year senior. “We’ve had some close games, morale is good and we’re looking forward to this week.”
Senior wide receiver Marquelo Suel agreed: “It’s easier because of going through it before. We know how to stay positive and not get too low.”
As they prepare to take on the Bobcats, the next couple of weeks could provide insight into just how far the Zips have come under Bowden and his staff, not with respect to statistics, but temperament. Last year at this time, a loss to Ohio was followed by a one-point loss to Central Michigan. Then everything fell apart. The Zips lost the final four games by an average of 38½ points and coach Rob Ianello was fired.
“It’s just something [that] built up over time,” Gilmer said. “Eventually, things got to a bad point last year with everybody.”
However, even if the defeats continue, players such as Gilmer and Suel, who endured two seasons of brutal losses before Bowden’s arrival, remain hopeful.
“Yes, it’s different because guys are still hungry and have motivation,” Suel said.
There are fundamental reasons for the struggles. Lack of depth continues to haunt the Zips, but statistics point to a vastly improved squad, especially offensively.
Last year, the UA offense ranked last in scoring, but now it is tied for third in the MAC. Scoring defense has improved from last to 11th, not a huge step but progress. In fact, the Zips were last in a number of statistical categories. That has all improved.
“We’re getting better each week, and we’re getting close, so it’s something we can see,” Gilmer said.
Suel points to Bowden for guidance in the tough times.
“Plus, it’s someone you can play for,” he said. “Once you have someone you can play for it helps you out.”
That could be viewed as a huge difference between this year and last — the players having a sense of obligation.
“When you have a tough loss, a tough loss and a tough loss, you have to show a lot of character,” Bowden said. “I think it’s up to us as coaches, who have a lot of maturity and a lot of experience, we have to lend our support and experience. I believe, as do all my coaches, that morale is the most important thing that you can have. As long as we have morale of our players and coaches then they will continue to play hard like they are. We’re not the first team to go through this and we will not give up.”
Running back Jawon Chisholm has posted two consecutive 100-yard games and has three this season. He has run for 498 yards, good enough for eighth in the league, on 88 carries with two touchdowns.
Defensive lineman Nico Caponi was kneeling on the sideline and in a walking boot during practice Thursday. He’s out against Ohio as are wide receiver Tyrell Goodman and defensive end Albert Presley.
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.