The University of Akron and Kent State walked divergent paths on the football field last season.
The Golden Flashes enjoyed incredible success before losing to Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game and missing out on a BCS game.
The Zips endured another 1-11 season as they began the rebuilding path under coach Terry Bowden, his first season leading the program.
They share a lot this season, including identical records (2-7, 1-4 in Mid-American Conference). Both have had schedules that have done them little in the way of favors. Kent State’s opponents have included major programs such as LSU and Penn State. The Zips have faced Michigan and Central Florida, both in the AP Top 25. Translation: their respective schedules haven’t included Our Sisters of the Poor.
They’ve also each lost to common foes Bowling Green, Ball State and Northern Illinois.
But ultimately none of that matters today.
Kent State comes to InfoCision Stadium for a 3:30 p.m. game in possession of the coveted Wagon Wheel, and its four-year seniors have the chance to accomplish something not done since the 1950s — a four-year sweep of this rivalry game.
For Zips seniors such as Jerrod Dillard, that prospect isn’t very appealing, Bowden said in his weekly news conference.
However, beyond those commonalities, Bowden offered another: “They both have something to prove.”
Indeed, Kent State will try to salvage what’s left of its season under first-year coach Paul Haynes with a victory, and the Zips are itching to show the program is finally turning a corner.
Bowden said this game stands apart from the Zips’ big picture, and that might be true. But a victory over the Flashes would represent a pixel in that picture.
Here’s what the Zips have to do to make that happen:
The defensive line has been a bit beat up in recent weeks, but it gets an instant infusion of depth. Defensive end C.J. James, who has six tackles for loss, returns after sitting out four games because of an NCAA eligibility issue.
“His legs are fresh and he’s anxious to play. We can use him; it gives us some depth at that defensive end,” Bowden said.
You add James to a line that has been the strength of the defense thus far, and they can make things complicated for the Flashes’ offense and quarterback Colin Reardon. The Zips have been able to get pressure on the quarterback from the starters (Albert Presley, Cody Grice, Nico Caponi and James) on the line and from those who rotate into the game. That allows the linebacking corps of Justin March, Jatavis Brown and Dylan Evans to play aggressively. If they can keep Reardon, who is coming off his best passing game of the season with respect to yardage, off his game, they have a chance.
The other key: stop everything man Dri Archer, who was hobbled by an ankle injury early in the season. That injury has prevented him from duplicating last year’s astounding success, which made him a preseason Heisman candidate, but that by no means diminishes his skill-set. The Zips will have to plan for every play he’s on the field, be it as a rusher or receiver.
Ultimately, however, the onus will be on that front seven. If they can do their jobs, the defensive backs will have an easier time dealing with a group of six receivers that average close to 10 yards or more per catch.
This is the reality for Zips quarterback Kyle Pohl and his offense: the Flashes give up yards — more than 470 per game to be exact.
Pohl has been what a first-year starter usually is at the quarterback spot — inconsistent. The best way to help him overcome that? Running back Jawon Chisholm.
Bowden isn’t ready to say that Chisholm is on track, but after his past two games, including a 166-yard effort last week, he’s getting there. He and backup Conor Hundley only need to keep their efforts up to take some of the heat off of Pohl.
Kent State gives up more than 220 yards rushing per game, and if Chisholm continues to find his running zones, he could enjoy another nice afternoon.
What that does for Pohl is force that Kent State defense, which is led by Roosevelt Nix, to play closer to the line, possibly freeing soft spots in the defense for receivers L.T. Smith, Zach D’Orazio, Dillard and others. It’s a game that Bowden and offensive coordinator A.J. Milwee might want to establish the run before the pass.
On special teams
Being a rivalry game, it could come down to a field goal. Zips kicker Robert Stein has been inconsistent this year (5-of-12). He can’t afford a miss in this game.
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.