In any sport, rising from worst to first is a good thing.
Conversely, going the other way is not as desirable.
That is where the University of Akron football team stands as it prepares to take on backyard rival Kent State on Saturday at Dix Stadium in Kent.
Given the preseason schedule, the Zips’ 2-2 record is not too bad as they head into the Mid-American Conference portion of the season. But there are cracks in UA’s foundation, and they’re showing up mainly on defense.
At this point last season, the Zips were giving up 333 yards and 22 points per game. This year it’s 529 yards per and 40 points per game.
Defensive coordinator and associate head coach Chuck Amato knew it wasn’t going to be easy given the amount of talent that is gone off of last season’s stellar unit.
But the struggles the Zips have had on defense are something UA fans are not used to seeing.
“I’m not either,” Amato said. “You can tell the fans that. I’m not either.”
The primary issue revealed itself in last week’s 45-38 loss to Appalachian State at InfoCision Stadium.
Backup running back, Jalin Moore, subbing for the team’s starter, rolled up 257 yards rushing on 39 carries against the Zips, the first time a back had bruised a UA defense that way in more than a decade.
“We’re not a good tackling football team and that’s the most important thing on defense is tackling and we can’t get lined up maybe 10 percent of the time,” Amato said. “We’re not doing anything [schematically] that we haven’t done for the last three years.”
But the personnel is certainly different. Growing pains were expected for this Zips defense given the losses of Cody Grice, Dylan Evans, Darryl Monroe and especially Jatavis Brown.
“I thought before the season began we need to be a little more productive on offense this year because we’re building our defense back up, so that’s kind of just the way that it’s been,” UA coach Terry Bowden said during his Tuesday news conference.
That certainly has been the case. The Zips have rolled up 40 points per game on offense in their first four games. But the chemistry being shown on offense is missing on defense.
“They offered great leadership on that front seven,” Bowden said of last year’s unit. “You’ve got some younger guys in there, so chemistry is usually very apparent when you’re winning.”
In other words there’s no winning without chemistry and there’s no chemistry without winning. Bowden said he’s not ready to panic and expects the Zips’ defense to stay the course schematically.
“We need to go out there and find the best 11 people and keep them on the field as long as we can and make sure each person does his job,” he said.
For Amato, it comes down to correcting the tackling issues. He said his seniors have talked about it but it comes down to fixing the fundamentals. Moore broke tackles with ease and Amato saw a lot of players not wrapping up and finishing on some plays.
That will be addressed on the field during practice this week as the team prepares for Kent State.
“The only way we can fix that is by doing it,” Amato said.
But there’s also another aspect for the defense to repair as the process goes forward.
“They have to get more focused,” Amato said. “When you run out on Saturdays and the band’s playing and the fans are there yelling, it’s easy to get excited for a while. But you’ve got to get excited on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday because the other thing is an easy thing. And you’ve got to practice hard. You’re only going to play as you practice.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips.