The struggles of a mostly youthful secondary and poor field position caused by shaky punting early proved costly for the University of Akron football team on Saturday.
UAB quarterback Tyler Johnston III took advantage of the young Zips (0-2), who aided Johnston and his receivers with penalties and open looks, to lead the Blazers to a 31-20 victory at InfoCision Stadium in the Zips’ home opener.
Johnston completed 15-of-24 passes for 319 yards and four touchdowns of 25 yards or more — the longest going for 76 yards on the second possession of the second half. Wide receiver Austin Watkins had three catches for 95 yards and two touchdowns.
Although UAB took a lot of shots in the passing game, which is bolstered overall by a strong running game that the Zips kept in check, it was to be expected because the Blazers use play-action effectively.
“They were taking shots downfield and you have to give them credit,” UA coach Tom Arth said. “They hit it in those situations better than we did.”
Despite the youth of his defensive backs, Arth wasn’t interested in excuses for the loss.
“There’s some seasoned guys back there who’ve played a lot of college football games. There are some guys who haven’t,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’ve gone through fall camp. We’ve been through a game. There’s no freshmen left out there. There’s no excuses and lack of experience. We have to play better.”
UA’s offense faced a grimmer fate until later in the game.
The Zips marched 75 yards on 10 plays on their game-opening drive, which was capped by running back Deltron Sands’ 1-yard touchdown run. The kick by Jerry Fitschen failed, giving UA a 6-0 lead — the last one the Zips would have. UAB (2-0) followed with 31 unanswered points.
“I don’t really put my finger on one thing,” Zips quarterback Kato Nelson said when asked about the struggles offensively. “I felt really good about our passing attack today. I just feel like — on my behalf — I didn’t do a good job of getting the ball out quick on some plays.”
The Zips did produce moments in the first half that provided reason to be optimistic. Receiver Dustin Burkhart, who finished the game with eight receptions for 217 yards, had gains of 40 and 30 yards in the first half en route to the first 100-yard game of his career.
Nelson connected with wide receiver Nate Stewart on a 6-yard touchdown pass at 11:04 of the fourth quarter to cap an eight-play, 59-yard drive and cut the Blazers’ lead to 31-13.
The Nelson-Burkhart combination then breathed new life into the Zips, albeit briefly.
On a first-and-15 with less than five minutes to play, Burkhart streaked down the field surrounded by two Blazers defenders, one of whom got his hand on the ball, tipping it in the air. But Burkhart never lost his concentration on the ball, grabbed it and was pushed out of bounds at the UAB 7-yard line. He took little solace in his overall performance, but produced a smile when asked about the reception.
“They went up and made a play and, honestly, I was just focused on the ball,” he said, “and somehow it bounced right and my way, so I scooped it up and ran. There’s nothing else to really think about.”
Nelson, who completed 25-of-44 passes for 359 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, then found wide receiver Timothy Scippio on the next play for the score, cutting the UAB lead to 31-20 with 4:39 to play.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.