In the second week of Tuesday night MACtion, Akron and Miami (Ohio) meet in Oxford with the two teams heading in the opposite direction entering the matchup. Akron sports a 4-1 record in its last five games, while Miami has done the opposite during the same stretch. Miami leads the all-time series 16-9-1, but the Zips carry the momentum having won the last four meetings. The last time Miami beat Akron in Oxford was in 2011, a 35-3 victory over the Zips.
Akron enters at 5-4, with a 4-1 record in MAC play, good enough to tie the Zips with Ohio for first in the MAC East. Akron opened 2017 with a 52-0 thumping at the hands of then-No. 6 Penn State, then responded with a 52-3 win over FCS opponent Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Losses against a very good Iowa State team and a five-point loss at Troy hurt their non-conference résumé, but the Zips answered with three consecutive wins against Bowling Green, Ball State and Western Michigan. The only blemish in their MAC slate thus far was a 27-point loss at West Division leader Toledo. This begins a run of three consecutive Tuesday games for Akron, who will take on Ohio and Kent State to finish the regular season.
Miami has struggled mightily in recent games, dropping three in a row at one point and now four of its last five. The RedHawks opened MAC play with a 17-point win against Central Michigan, but followed up a 35-point loss to Notre Dame with one-possession losses against Bowling Green and Kent State. Four of Miami’s six losses in 2017 have come by eight or fewer points, so the RedHawks been in a position to win a number of games but could not close the deal down the stretch. Meanwhile, each of the three wins (FCS opponent Austin Peay, CMU, Buffalo) have been by double digits. Miami needs to win its final three games (Eastern Michigan and Ball State follow Akron) to make a bowl, which would be its second straight after missing out on the postseason from 2011-15.
Akron at Miami
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Miami (Ohio) -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Miami WR James Gardner vs. Akron’s porous pass defense
Gardner (above, right) has been on fire in his junior campaign. The RedHawks' top weapon leads the MAC with nine touchdown receptions and 20.1 yards per reception, and he also ranks among the top 12 nationally in both categories. Additionally, his 94.1 receiving yards per game are good for third in the conference. He’ll have a tremendous matchup going up against Akron’s pass defense, which has been downright atrocious in 2017. The Zips allow an average 257 yards through the air per game this season, which is worst in the MAC and in the bottom third of the FBS.
2. Time of possession
Not only does Miami have arguably one of the most dangerous offensive players in the country in Gardner, but the RedHawks manage to keep possession for 32-plus minutes per game, second in the MAC and 15th in the FBS. That’s a deadly combination, a team that can strike at any time and can chew up the clock once it gets a lead. The key for Akron is two-fold: stop Gardner, and get out to an early lead. If the RedHawks can get out in front and control the clock, it’ll be a long night for the Zips.
3. Akron’s quick-strike defense vs. Miami QB
One big way for Akron to prevent Miami from jumping out in front early and keeping possession? The Zips' defense might give up a lot of yards, but it is very opportunistic. Akron has 11 interceptions in 2017, which is second best in the MAC and 21st in the nation. Pair that with three defensive touchdowns, which leads the conference and is sixth-most nationally.
Miami has proven that it loves to air it out with Gardner, but who will be throwing him the ball?
Gus Ragland opened the season as the starter and has been steady (12 TDs, 4 INTs), but far from spectacular (53.3 percent completion rate, 233 ypg). He got hurt a month ago against Bowling Green and was replaced by fellow junior Billy Bahl. He struggled in a bad loss to Kent State, but made enough plays to help the RedHawks beat Buffalo and then put up some big numbers (350 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) in last week’s loss to Ohio. Ragland dressed for the game against the Bobcats and there was some talk that he may return, but he didn’t see the field. Bahl is listed as the starter for Tuesday night on the depth chart (dated Nov. 1) in the game notes, but that doesn’t mean Ragland won’t return. Whoever is under center, chances are he will have a short leash.
The teams come into Tuesday night on different trajectories, but both are still mathematically alive for a bowl, with Akron (5-4) in a much better spot than Miami (3-6). Akron can become bowl eligible with a win, and would join Ohio, Toledo and Northern Illinois in the postseason if the Zips can do so. Miami, meanwhile, would move back to .500 in MAC play with a win, which would be the first step of three on the RedHawks' quest to return to the postseason. And in a last-minute twist, Akron quarterback Thomas Woodson was suspended for this game. Kato Nelson will start for the Zips.
Prediction: Miami 31, Akron 28
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Associate Editor of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Photos courtesy of www.miamiredhawks.com)