Starting your Division I coaching career at a mid-major program against a Power 5 school is one way to do things, as University of Akron first-year coach Tom Arth will find out when the visiting Zips take on Illinois at noon Saturday.
Of course, Arth didn’t have much to do with the schedule. His fate to open the season was decided while he still toiled away at John Carroll University, where his teams on occasion gave Mount Union fits.
He is, however, willing to accept the challenge.
“I know one thing — I know we’re going to go out there and play with great effort,” Arth said earlier this week. “We’re going to play with competitive desire, and to me that is the most important thing. I do feel really good heading into this season.”
Arth inherited a team that included some players who enjoyed a victory over a Big Ten opponent — Northwestern — last year in dramatic fashion. Still, he knows that was then. He and his coaching staff were not here. Yet, the message is likely the same — trust your technique and training.
“It’s kind of the first thing that we started off with this [Tuesday] morning with our players. It’s game one. It’s a game, whether you’re playing a Big Ten opponent or any other opponent,” Arth said matter-of-factly. “It really makes no difference.
"We’re not asking our players to go out there and have some sort of out-of-body experience and do something they’ve never done before. We’re just asking them to go do what they do in practice every day.”
Can the underdog Zips pull out a victory as they did last year when all of their offensive and defensive schemes have changed and an air of newness still pervades the program?
An important note is that this isn’t Arth’s first “big” game. After turning the Blue Streaks into winners — being one of just three teams to beat Mount Union from 2013-16 and playoff appearances in three of those years — he’s seen his share of them.
However, the Illini have struggled under fourth-year coach Lovie Smith, who has a 9-27 record since taking over the program. Although the Illini enjoyed offensive success last year, averaging 26 points a game, they gave up 39 points per outing.
Smith, who earned his reputation as a defensive guru while in the NFL and leading the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl appearance, has taken over the defense this year.
“They were young. They learned a lot,” Arth said of the Illini, who finished 4-8 overall and 2-7 in the Big Ten last season. “They gained a lot of invaluable experience playing and making mistakes and overcoming those mistakes.
"Certainly with a coach such as Lovie Smith, he’s as good as they come on the defensive side of the ball, so I’m sure he’s going to have them ready to go and playing at an extremely high level.”
Arth admitted the Zips haven’t been as consistent during camp as he would have liked. He said he saw the situation improve in the waning days.
The Illini, however, will likely have offensive adjustments of their own with which to contend as they welcome transfer quarterback Brandon Peters, who arrives from Michigan with two years of eligibility remaining. At 6-5 and 220 pounds, he has the size of which coaches dream.
“It will be interesting to see how his skillset affects that offense — how they adjust to him, if they adjust to him, what their plan is to play the freshman [in] any wildcat situations they get into,” Arth said. "There’s a lot of unknown, and it adds to it when you add a new quarterback that hasn’t been there and hasn’t been in that system.”
Arth didn’t add any bluster when he talked about what the Zips need to do to win. For him, it’s about applying their rules, knowing their on-field responsibilities and making the right adjustments. He’s confident in his team.
“They’ve exceeded my expectations in every way imaginable,” Arth said, “and I hope that we exceed the expectations that people have for us as a team this year.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.