Beating Michigan doesn’t represent an impossible task in this first meeting, but it could be as close as the University of Akron gets to one as the Zips continue the effort to turn the program around.
A measuring stick to see where the program is? More like a measuring log because on paper, this one isn’t supposed to be close.
But there’s a reason they play the games.
Ask Michigan, which lost to Appalachian State in 2007. Knowledgeable college football fans know the Wolverines got caught with their helmets off in that one with a team in transition.
The fundamental difference in this Michigan team led by Devin Gardner, who assumed the role of starting quarterback with five games left last season, is that it is ascending.
Coach Terry Bowden sees no Appalachian State on the horizon here and his approach to the Wolverines is cliché, but pragmatic.
“You have to look at what you’re doing and look at what your kids are able to do and make sure you put them in the best situation to be successful,” he said during his Tuesday news conference.
The reality is that the Zips will have to play perfectly, and in their first two games they’ve not been close.
Offensively, they have to establish some consistency with the uptempo nature of Bowden’s spread. They’ve put the defense in a situation in which it is on the field far too long.
James Madison ran 94 plays against UA in the Zips’ 35-33 win last week. If Michigan gets to do that, it’s a guarantee that more of those plays will end in scores.
To eat the clock and keep the defense fresh, running back Jawon Chisholm has to run consistently and quarterback Kyle Pohl needs to get into a rhythm early with his receivers.
Understandably, Bowden is mum on his game plan, but Pohl is comfortable with it.
“My only worry is that we don’t play fast enough where they can line up and be ready for us,” he said. “I think we’ve got a great game plan. They’ve set it up real good. We have a lot of opportunity. All we have to do is execute right now.”
Surprisingly, the primary issues come on defense where the Zips have shown serious, albeit correctable, problems in their two games.
It already sounds like a broken record, but the tendency to give up big plays has exacerbated their problems.
Against James Madison, defensive coordinator Chuck Amato counted nine plays that totaled more than 210 yards. It wasn’t much better against Central Florida.
The host of problems includes shoddy tackling, not flying to the ball and the inability to make plays, Amato said.
“We aren’t making the plays that we’re capable of making,” he said. “We have actually dropped five interceptions in two games and one of them would have been a good catch.”
The near-53 percent third-down conversion percentage opponents enjoy is a byproduct of all that. For the Zips to have any success, they have to eliminate the big play.
With Gardner and his primary receiver, Jeremy Gallon, who has caught a pass in 28 consecutive games, that will be difficult. Gardner is averaging 228 yards passing per game and has tossed five touchdowns. Four of those have gone to Gallon, who has caught 12 passes for 231 yards for 19.2 yards per catch.
Translation: no mistakes allowed.
A different homecoming
Going back to Michigan to play football isn’t a first for Zips wide receiver Jerrod Dillard, but it is the first time he will play in the Big House, home to the team that he grew up supporting.
“I grew up a Michigan fan. I have been all my life,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “I’ve been in the Big House plenty of times, but never to play there, so it’s going to be a good experience.”
Although he’s played against the three Michigan-based Mid-American Conference schools, he’ll have to check his emotions after the game ends.
“It’s going to be different — I’m rooting against them obviously — but I can flip the switch on and off when I want to,” he 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.