It was Black Friday for the rest of America, but there was nothing bleak about the effort the University of Akron put forth Friday at InfoCision Stadium.
In a game of momentum shifts, the Zips staved off a Toledo comeback with two defensive efforts, including sophomore cornerback Bryce Cheek breaking up a two-point conversion pass to tie the score, to upset the Rockets 31-29 in the season finale.
“They’re a good football team. I don’t imagine a lot of people in the country picked us to win that game,” UA coach Terry Bowden said.
The Zips (5-7, 4-4 Mid-American Conference) gained 344 total yards and the defense came up with timely plays. UA quarterback Kyle Pohl completed 18-of-29 passes for 259 yards and three touchdowns and running back Jawon Chisholm rushed for a touchdown.
It appeared as if the Zips had the game under control before drama set in during the second half.
The Zips’ opening drive of the second half proved a disaster, but the defense bailed them out. Their second drive of the second half, which spanned eight plays, 61 yards and knocked 3:42 off the clock, culminated with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Pohl to senior tight end John Root, who waited until Senior Day to score his first collegiate touchdown. It gave the Zips a 24-10 lead and a tailwind.
But with a seemingly endless number of running backs — the Rockets (7-5, 5-3) were already down two including star David Fluellen — Toledo certainly wasn’t out. Freshman Kareem Hunt pierced the Zips for 103 yards before Marc Remy got into the act.
Remy’s blend of power and quickness inflicted the most damage in the second half.
He led the way on the Rockets’ next possession, a 14-play, 77-yard effort that ended when quarterback Terrance Owens hit Dwight Macon for a 12-yard touchdown that cut the Zips’ lead to 24-17.
With the Zips unable to answer, they punted to the Toledo 43 and Owens went back to work. Remy continued to rack up yardage and primed his team, giving them an opportunity to at least tie the score.
But on third-and-goal, Owens tried to hit a receiver but Zips defensive back Johnny Robinson intercepted the ball and ran it back 16 yards before fumbling. Teammate C.J. Mizell recovered the ball and the Zips had dodged a bullet.
“The defensive line got good pressure on the quarterback,” Robinson said. “They probably altered the throw a little bit and I just tried to make a play on the ball.”
Bowden had little problem describing it.
“That was huge,” he said.
It wasn’t the ultimate decider, however. The Zips’ special teams and defense had to continue to work for the win.
The Zips punted back to the Rockets and the UA defense held again. On fourth-and-7, Toledo tried a fake punt as Junior Sylvestre took the ball on the snap and tried an end run but UA’s Andrew Pratt was waiting for him.
The Zips followed with a three-play, 52-yard drive to grab a 31-17 lead with 6:33 left in the game.
But it wasn’t over.
Toledo scored twice before the clock ran out.
The Rockets scored on Owen’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Bernard Reedy with 5:37 to play. In what would later loom as a big play, Akron’s Cody Grice blocked the extra-point kick attempt. Grice’s effort enabled the Zips to hold an 8-point lead.
Remy’s 3-yard touchdown run made it 31-29 with 59 seconds to go, thus forcing the Rockets to for a potenital game-tying two-point conversion.
Owens threw a pass into a corner of the end zone. It was knocked down by Cheek to preserve the win.
It gave the Zips their best season since last winning the MAC East Division in 2005 and gives them momentum heading into the offseason.
“We just have to carry this momentum and take this winning mentality that we have right now and continue to use it this off season [and] all throughout the spring,” Pohl said. “Because it’s a different mindset here right than what it’s been since I’ve been here. We just have to remember how this feels and not get complacent and push harder.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at https://ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.