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Pittsburgh Panthers vs. Akron Zips Preview and Prediction

James Conner

James Conner

The first week of the college football season was not necessarily positive for either the Pittsburgh Panthers or the Akron Zips.

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While Pitt won, beating an FCS opponent, even a good one like Youngstown State, by only eight points wasn’t what the Panthers had in mind in way of style points. Worse, they lost running back James Conner, one of the best running backs in all of college football, for the season with a knee injury.

Akron, meanwhile, was routed by Oklahoma, 41-3. While few would have predicted a victory against the 19th-ranked Sooners, the Zips were just 8-of-25 through the air and probably kept the score down with 44 rushing attempts, including 11 of 14 plays in the fourth quarter when the game was decided.

Surprisingly, even though Akron is only 110 miles from Pittsburgh and both programs started playing football in the 1890s, the Panthers and Zips have only met three times prior to this game, most memorably Akron’s 21-10 victory last season at Heinz Field.

This is the first time the Zips have hosted Pitt.

Pittsburgh at Akron

Kickoff: 6 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV Channel: ESPN3

Spread: Pitt -13, O/U 49

Three Things to Watch

1. How will Pitt handle the Conner absence?

To many onlookers, the Panthers went from being a dark horse in the Atlantic Coast Conference race to a question mark to even make a bowl game with the loss of Conner, who rushed for more than 1,700 yards and set a Pitt record with 26 rushing touchdowns last season.

Still, despite the injuries to Conner and his top backup, Chris James, freshman Qadree Ollison rushed for more than 200 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown run, and carried a Panthers offense that often struggled through the air to three second half touchdowns.

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James, who rushed for more than 400 yards as Conner’s backup last season, is expected to return on Saturday, though Ollison will start after his impressive debut. Former four-star running back Jameel Poteat was moved from linebacker to the backfield this week by Pitt head coach Pat Nardozzi, though bruising freshman Darrin Hall will likely get playing time ahead of Poteat.

The thing that will likely help Pitt’s running game the most, however, is the return of wide receiver Tyler Boyd after a one-game suspension for an offseason DUI. Boyd caught 78 passes last year for a team that could not find a single receiver in their 45-37 victory against Youngstown State more than twice.

2. Who will play quarterback for the Zips?

The Akron signal callers were dreadful last Saturday. Former Pitt Panther Tra’Von Chapman started against Oklahoma and rushed for a team-high 48 yards but failed to complete any of his eight passes, while Kyle Pohl was just 6 for 17 with 88 passing yards.

Zips head coach Terry Bowden even hinted if this trend continues, third-stringer Thomas Woodson could take over.

The top Akron receiver is a familiar name for Pitt fans — Jerome Lane Jr., the son of the former Panthers basketball star best known for demolishing a backboard on a dunk in the late 1980s. He switched from safety to become Akron’s leading receiver against the Sooners, catching three passes, including one for 42 yards.

3. What will the attendance be?

Last year the Zips finished dead last in Division I FBS football attendance, drawing just 9,170 fans a game. In 2012 Akron drew just 9,200 fans a season, and in 2010 the figure hovered just above 10,000.

Nobody is expecting the Zips to outdraw Ohio State, but in theory if this continues at InfoCision Stadium-Summa Field, Akron could be kicked out of the ranks of FBS if they do not draw more than 15,000 fans per game this season.

It’s unlikely the Mid-American Conference would allow that to happen, but this game presents an opportunity for Pitt fans to have an impact much the same way Steelers fans often do on the road. Panthers fans have often been criticized for showing up in less-than-impressive numbers, so this game may actually present something of a welcome switch for both teams with more than 20,000 advance tickets sold.

Final analysis

Last year Akron running back Conor Hundley rushed for 148 yards on just 19 carries to lead the Zips to their upset of Pitt. He was limited to less than 40 yards against Oklahoma last week.

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Many fans were upset the Pitt defense allowed 30 points against YSU (the Penguins scored one touchdown on an interception return). Judge the improvement of Nardozzi’s defense by what Hundley does in this game.

Prediction: Pitt 31, Akron 17

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.