The stakes are high on Tuesday night for midweek MACtion, as Akron hosts rival Kent State needing a victory to claim the East Division title. In one of the MAC’s biggest surprises in conference play this year, the Zips knocked off Ohio last Tuesday and moved within one victory of the East Division crown. For Kent State, Tuesday night is an opportunity to play spoiler and end the season on a positive note after a 2-9 record through 11 contests. In addition to the division title for Akron, the Wagon Wheel rivalry trophy is also on the line.
Akron was projected to finish fourth in the MAC’s East Division this preseason but are 60 minutes from a trip to Detroit. A tough non-conference slate featuring Penn State, Iowa State and Troy forced the Zips into a 1-3 start. However, coach Terry Bowden’s team rebounded in MAC play. Akron defeated Bowling Green (34-23) in the conference opener, followed by wins against Ball State and Western Michigan. The Zips were defeated by Toledo 48-21 in late October but scored a one-point win over Buffalo before stumbling at Miami 24-14 on Nov. 7. None of those results were particularly surprising, but Akron’s upset over Ohio last Tuesday provide a shake up at the top of the division. The loss by the Bobcats took place one week after coach Frank Solich’s team dominated Toledo – the frontrunner of the MAC West. A win over Kent State would give Akron its first trip to Detroit under Bowden, and the program is also headed to its second bowl in three years.
Kent State is one of the toughest jobs in the MAC. The Golden Flashes have just nine winning seasons since 1962 and one bowl appearance since 1975. If there’s a coach that understands this challenge, it’s certainly the one in charge: Paul Haynes. However, Haynes – a former Kent State defensive back – is just 14-44 in his five seasons at the school. Haynes’ contract expires at the end of the season, and barring a complete surprise, it seems change is inevitable. A season-ending injury to quarterback Nick Holley in early September hindered the offense, but Kent State has lost at least nine games in four consecutive years.
Akron holds a 33-24-2 series edge over Kent State. The Zips won last season’s meeting 31-27 in early October and have claimed three out of the last four in this rivalry.
Kent State at Akron
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 21 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Akron -15
Three Things to Watch
1. Akron QB Kato Nelson
Akron coach Terry Bowden isn’t tipping his hand as to which quarterback will start on Tuesday night. However, the answer seems pretty defined if the last two games are any indication. Senior Thomas Woodson started the first nine games and threw for 1,742 yards and 14 touchdowns. However, Woodson was suspended prior to the game at Miami (Ohio), leaving redshirt freshman Kato Nelson as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. Nelson didn’t have much time to prepare as the starter for the matchup from the RedHawks but still completed 19 of 38 throws for 218 yards and added two overall scores. But with a full week to work in practice as the starter and one game of full snaps under his belt, Nelson shined in the upset over Ohio. The redshirt freshman gashed the Bobcats defense for 322 yards and four touchdowns through the air and added 45 yards on 14 carries.
Even though Bowden won’t tip his hand prior to the start of Tuesday night’s game, it seems unlikely Nelson would sit after guiding the offense to its highest point total (37) in MAC play this season. Nelson is developing as a passer, but his ability to move around in the pocket and create plays with his legs adds a different element to the offense.
Considering Akron’s offense is only averaging 5.2 yards per play and 23.2 points a game, Nelson’s big-play ability is a nice addition for the offense. Manny Morgan (296 yards) and Van Edwards (242) are the top options for Nelson at running back, with Kwadarrius Smith (31) A.J. Coney (38) and Tra’Von Chapman (47) anchoring the receiving corps.
Even though Akron’s offense hasn’t been particularly explosive, it could have a huge Tuesday night against Kent State’s defense. The Golden Flashes are giving up 6.5 yards per play and 36.1 points a game. Stopping the run (221.6 ypg) has been an issue, and Haynes’ defense is giving up too many big plays (20 of 40 yards or more).
Coming off an impressive performance against Ohio, Nelson seems poised to make his third start and deliver another big statistical night on tap against a struggling Kent State defense.
2. Kent State’s Offense
Offense has been a problem for Kent State over the last four years. The Golden Flashes ranked 12th or worse in the MAC in yards per play generated every season since 2014. Additionally, this unit is on track to finish a year with a scoring average of less than 20 points for the third time in four seasons.
Coordinator Don Treadwell has had some bad luck on his side this season. Quarterback Nick Holley was lost for the year in Week 3 due to injury, leaving the Golden Flashes shorthanded under center. Junior George Bollas (1,089 yards) has tossed four touchdowns to 10 interceptions, with freshman Dustin Crum connecting on 12 of 25 throws for 192 yards and a touchdown. Both quarterbacks could see time on Tuesday night, but Bollas should take the majority of the snaps after throwing for a career-high 310 yards in last week’s loss to Central Michigan.
Even though Kent State’s quarterback situation is a primary reason for its offensive issues in recent years, this team does have some talent at the skill positions. Running back Justin Rankin averages only nine carries a game but has 417 yards and two touchdowns on just 102 attempts. Bollas (242 yards) also adds a little punch to the ground game. At receiver, sophomore Trey Harrell (19.1 ypc) leads the team with 324 receiving yards, with Rankin (38 catches) leading the team in receptions. Mike Carrigan (who had a big game against Central Michigan last week), Kavious Price and Kris White round out the key contributors at receiver.
Akron’s defense has been prone to giving up some yardage (437.4 ypg in 2017), but opponents are only managing 25.7 points a game against this unit. While the Zips may trade yardage for stops once teams cross midfield, this unit hasn’t allowed many big plays (just 10 of 40 yards or more), ranks fifth in the MAC in third-down conversions and fourth in red-zone defense. Additionally, this unit has excelled at taking the ball away (19 forced turnovers).
In the month of October, Kent State’s offense managed just 39 points in four games. However, in two contests in November, the Golden Flashes have scored 43. Will those signs of life on offense continue against Akron? Or will the Zips deliver one of their better efforts on defense to seal the MAC East?
As mentioned in the previous section, takeaways have fueled Akron’s defense this year. While it’s hard to predict or plan on turnovers, in three out of the last four years, the Zips have ranked inside of the top five among defenses in the MAC in takeaways. Coordinator Chuck Amato has this defense following the same blueprint, as Akron has generated 19 takeaways through 11 contests, including five over the last two games. The 15 forced turnovers in MAC-only matchups ranks as the third-most among MAC teams for 2017.
While Akron has thrived on takeaways, Kent State has been rather generous in giving it away. The Golden Flashes have lost 23 turnovers and enter Tuesday night’s game with a minus-five margin. Over their last four contests, Kent State has lost 12 turnovers, including four apiece against Western Michigan and Bowling Green.
Will this trend in the turnover department for both teams continue on Saturday? Or can Kent State limit the mistakes and force this game to stay within a score deep into the fourth quarter?
Considering the rivalry aspect of this game, Akron shouldn’t expect an easy path to the MAC East title. With less than 20 miles separating these teams, there’s plenty of familiarity and motivation on Kent State’s part to play spoiler. However, it’s tough to find a path for Haynes’ team to win this one. Nelson is a promising and dynamic addition to the Akron offense, and the defense should create problems for a Golden Flashes’ attack that has struggled to hold onto the ball. Barring a complete collapse, the Zips are headed to Detroit for the MAC title game for just the second time in program history.
Prediction: Akron 31, Kent State 13
(Akron/Kent State photo courtesy of www.kentstatesports.com)