University of Akron football coach Terry Bowden wants to make it clear.
Saturday’s game against archrival Kent State, the 56th meeting of the two teams, stands independent of everything else in his second season as Zips coach.
“This is the Wagon Wheel,” Bowden said. “This is the game that can make your season special. Playing winning football is the key, but when you play Kent State and bring that Wagon Wheel home, that could make up for a lot of tough Saturdays.”
And it could make for a lot of new memories. With that in mind, Bowden is imprinting on his team’s psyche just what this backyard rivalry means.
Fifth-year senior wide receiver Jerrod Dillard spoke to the team Tuesday. Dillard was on the team when the Wagon Wheel was last at UA, but more importantly, he remembers what it means to lose it for three consecutive seasons.
The coaching staff gave the Zips information about the trophy and its history along with that of the two schools.
Most notably, Jim Dennison, the winningest (80-62-2) coach in UA history, will talk to the team, too.
The Zips and Flashes this season are both 2-7, 1-4 Mid-American Conference.
Bowden isn’t worry about where the game fits in with the program’s trajectory. In sports, rivalries take on an altogether different status.
“To me, rivalry games stand alone,” he said. “It’s important to our program. It’s important to us. Right now, we’re excited about playing them, and we’ll find out where we are.”
There’s little doubt that the game arrives at the right time of the season. Kent State has been unable to duplicate the spectacular success it enjoyed last year, and the Zips are in rebuilding mode. It offers a respite from the hum-drum atmosphere that could greet programs that are struggling.
The game coincides with something else for the Zips, the apparent arrival of running back Jawon Chisholm, who has uncorked two nice games the past couple of weeks.
In a victory over Miami, Chisholm ran for 86 yards and scored three touchdowns. Against Ball State, he racked up 166 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown run, his longest of the season. In those two games, he averaged more than 6 yards per carry.
However good that things might look because of those numbers, Bowden resisted the urge to say his starting running back, who is nicknamed “Crazy Legs,” is in a groove.
“He’s kind of a journey,” Bowden joked. “Jawon is a running back; he’ll never be on track because a track suggests there’s this right way to go.”
Chisholm, more of a class I-formation running back, looks as if he’s finally figured out running within Bowden’s spread system. His reads in running zones have been quicker with the result being that he’s hitting the hole quickly. In the process, he’s running more north-and-south as opposed to east-and-west.
“We worked hard on it,” Bowden said.
C.J. James to return
The Zips are second in the MAC with 25 sacks, but they’re never too good for more depth.
Speedy defensive end C.J. James will return just in time to face the Golden Flashes after sitting out four games because of an NCAA eligibility issue.
“It was tough on him to come here, sit out a full year then have one year left to play and then lose a third of your games,” Bowden said.
When team officials and James discovered the issue, he was just coming off a three-sack performance against Bowling Green. He has been practicing.
“He handled it very well and he’s running around like a scalded dog out there,” Bowden said of James’ attitude. “He’s got all of that energy. His legs are fresh and he’s anxious to play. We can use him.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. 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.