The Western Michigan Broncos will take the field for their final home game of the 2021 college football season when they host the Akron Zips on Tuesday night in Kalamazoo. Akron (2-7, 1-4 MAC) will play its first game with interim head coach Oscar Rodriguez Jr. at the helm after Tom Arth was fired during his third season amid a 3-24 record leading the Zips.
Both teams have endured disappointing campaigns as they enter Week 11 with just three combined wins in MAC play. Akron's 31-25 loss to Ball State last week marked its third in as many weeks, while Central Michigan's 42-30 victory over their neighbors to the west on Wednesday handed the Broncos their second straight defeat. Western Michigan (5-4, 2-3) may be out of the running for a West Division title, but the Broncos need just one more win to become bowl eligible for the third time in the last four seasons.
While the Zips fell by just six points to Ball State for their closest loss of the season thus far, It doesn't erase the struggles that Akron has had against the conference. The Zips have mustered just one MAC win in 2021 — thanks to a 21-point third quarter to set up a 35-20 comeback over Bowling Green in early October — compared to five conference losses by more than 18 points per game. Western Michigan also is looking to turn the page from a rough couple of games in which the Broncos have allowed 152 points in the last four weeks en route to three losses in that span.
Akron at Western Michigan
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Western Michigan -26
When Akron Has the Ball
The Zips have struggled mightily on offense in 2021, but the tough times can hardly be tied to one sole cause. Akron has turned the ball over 14 times — including nine fumbles lost — and has allowed more sacks per game (5.56) than any team in the FBS, while only Southern Miss and Iowa have yielded more tackles for a loss than the 8.11 that opposing defenses have collected against the Zips. Not to be outdone, however, is Akron's woeful performance in the red zone, as the Zips have scored on just 19 of their 28 trips inside opponents' 20-yard line, the fourth-worst scoring rate in the FBS.
Zach Gibson once again led the Zips' offense as Kato Nelson (undisclosed) has missed the last three games. Gibson played quite well in Nelson's absence, completing 24 of his 31 passes for 331 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Ball State. Jonzell Norrils offered balance out of the backfield, totaling 88 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries while catching two passes for 22 yards. But it was Michael Mathison who led the way, catching eight passes for 154 yards and a touchdown as Gibson's remaining 16 completions for 177 yards were spread among six different Zips.
Regardless of who starts at quarterback for Akron on Tuesday, the Zips will face a tough test, as Western Michigan boasts arguably the conference's best defense. The Broncos continue to lead the MAC with a little more than 127 rushing yards allowed per game while scooping up a MAC-high eight fumbles. WMU also has been tremendous at making plays behind the line of scrimmage, collecting more than three sacks and more than five tackles for a loss per game in 2021. Perhaps even more impressive is their continued success on third down, with opposing offenses converting on just 29 percent of such opportunities.
When Western Michigan Has the Ball
Contributing in no small part to that success on defense is Western Michigan's offense totaling nearly 36.5 minutes of possession per game. That clip is well in front for the conference lead and trails only the ground-oriented Army West Point Black Knights for the top mark nationally. When paired alongside the Broncos throwing just three interceptions entering Week 11 — one behind Toledo and Kent State (two apiece) for the MAC lead — it's quite clear that the near-absence of sudden changes has been a big boost for Western Michigan.
Interestingly, though, the Broncos haven't been able to capitalize as much as would be expected, as they find themselves in the middle of the pack in points (29.1) and only slightly better in yards (432.8) per game heading into the final three contests. Kaleb Eleby threw for 276 yards and a touchdown but also had his first interception since Oct. 9. Skyy Moore brought in a team-high eight catches while Corey Crooms tallied a team-best 118 yards and was on the other end of Eleby's lone touchdown pass.
Meanwhile, the rushing attack found the end zone three times in the loss. Sean Tyler led the way with 59 yards and two of the three scores, while La'Darius Jefferson was right behind him with 56 yards and his MAC-leading 10th rushing touchdown.
Finding the end zone has been a common theme for teams when taking on Akron, with each of the Zips' last three opponents — and seven of nine total — eclipsing the 30-point mark. Akron enters Week 11 at or near the bottom of the MAC in nearly every major defensive category, allowing a conference-worst 220 rushing yards per game and a whopping 54 percent conversion rate on third down. Only one other FBS team (Kansas, 56.9 percent) has fared worse in that situation.
On paper, Western Michigan has a clear edge on both sides of the ball in this matchup. But outside of a midseason doubling-up of Kent State, the Broncos have struggled in recent MAC matchups. Perhaps this week's meeting with Akron will provide a similar opportunity for a rebound as the Zips' two wins have come when scoring exactly 35 points, under which Western Michigan has held four of its last six opponents.
Prediction: Western Michigan 34, Akron 10
Podcast: Week 10 Recap, Reaction to Coaching Changes and a Preview of CFB Playoff Rankings
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.