If the University of Akron football team had hoped to make a statement to a bowl committee, it could not have done so in a better fashion.
UA beat archrival Kent State 20-0 in front of 16,391 fans Friday afternoon at InfoCision Stadium, allowing the Zips to reclaim the Wagon Wheel, the rivalry’s signature trophy.
It’s the team’s first shutout against Kent State since 1985 and the win all but ensures that UA will get to play in a bowl game with a 7-5 record.
Coach Terry Bowden said this team will be the one remembered for changing the culture of the entire program — one that had a 1-11 record when Bowden and his staff arrived. It allowed the program to accomplish one of its goals, its first winning record and bowl eligibility since the 2005-06 season. That team beat Northern Illinois 31-30 in the MAC Championship Game before going on to lose 38-31 to Memphis in the Motor City Bowl in Detroit to finish the season 7-6.
Bowden spoke after the game as if the Zips (7-5, 5-3) will receive a bowl bid despite having arguably the seventh-best resume in a conference with ties to six bowls.
“I know if I had a choice, I’d give it to [the players],” Bowden said of which bowl the Zips might be invited to play. “We’ve messed up more than done [well] with these players we have now and they’re the guys who got us to a bowl. I’d want to go exactly where they want us to go. I’ll run it by them.”
If nose tackle Cody Grice had his druthers, he knows exactly where that would be.
“I ain’t gonna lie,” he said. “I would love to go to the Bahamas [Bowl], to be honest with you. I would.”
However, given UA’s recent and ongoing financial issues, can they afford to send a football team to a bowl game?
“Can the school afford not to?” Bowden asked. “Don’t say you want to win seven or eight games a year and go to bowl games and say you can’t. The conference is going to tell us a lot about what we do in that. And I think sometimes if a conference has more than enough bowl-eligible teams we jump into some other ones.”
Teams will play in 40 bowl games during the holiday season and there has been talk of filling some of those slots with 5-7 teams so there is a good chance UA could end up in one of the six affiliated with the MAC or maybe a different one. For now, which team ends up where remains to be seen.
“These things will be debated and discussed and finagled,” Bowden said. “In the old days, it was a lot of politicking and, nowadays, it’s conference affiliated.”
The Zips shouldn’t have to do much campaigning.
Friday’s game was over for all practical purposes after the Zips held the ball for 14:56 of the third quarter, preventing the Golden Flashes from running a single offensive play. Much of that came on a drive that lasted 12:44 to open the second half and gave UA a 17-0 lead after a field goal by kicker Robert Stein.
UA’s defense smothered the Flashes, limiting them to 135 yards for the game and forcing three turnovers. The Zips scored on a 14-play, 77-yard drive with 25 seconds left in the opening quarter. The drive nearly stalled, but two key moments kept it rolling. The first came on a fourth-and-1 from the KSU 27-yard line. Akron quarterback Tommy Woodson handed the ball to Grice, who plowed over the right side of the line for the first down.
The second came moments later. The Zips faced a third-and-11 from the KSU 14-yard line. Woodson’s pass missed receiver Imani Davis, but officials flagged the defense for holding, setting the ball up at the KSU 7-yard line. Senior running back Conor Hundley capped the drive with a touchdown on the next play and the Zips led 7-0.
UA took advantage of a KSU mistake late in the first half. With 1:01 left in the half, KSU quarterback George Bollas rushed for 5 yards, but Zips defensive end Se’Von Pittman forced and recovered a fumble at the Flashes’ 11-yard line with 52 seconds left in the half. One play and seven seconds later, Woodson hit fullback Newman Williams with an 11-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-0 at halftime.
The Zips added two second-half field goals of 23 and 20 yards.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ.