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Know your 2018 Northwestern football opponent, Week 3: Akron

A surprisingly strong 2017 culminated in a conference championship game appearance for the Zips, but they will have to retool large swaths of their offense.

NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-Florida Atlantic vs Akron Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect.

The next team in our series is Akron. After making a surprise run to last year’s MAC Championship Game, the Zips lost a lot of offensive production. A second straight bowl bid would almost certainly rely on luck, much like it did in 2017.

In the past three years, Akron has struggled mightily against Power 5 opponents: the Zips are 0-5 in that time period, losing every game by at least three scores. When they meet Northwestern in Evanston on September 15th, the Wildcats will look to keep that going. Here’s the lowdown on this year’s Zips:

The Basics

Returning production: 62 percent (36 percent on offense, 87 percent on defense)

2017 record: 7-7 (6-2 MAC)

Coach: Terry Bowden (7th season, 31-44)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2017 S&P+ Overall: 112th

2017 S&P+ Offense: 114th

2017 S&P+ Defense: 82nd

2018 S&P+ Projection: 119th

2017 Capsule

Despite advanced numbers that came in well below average, the Zips were able to tread water with a healthy dose of luck. Akron lost just one game that Connelly’s win expectancy model (which is based on what actually happens in each matchup, not projections) gave them more than a zero percent chance to win. Meanwhile, a +10 turnover margin, good for 15th in the country, helped them slip away with some lucky close wins.

The Zips certainly began the season poorly, with a 52-0 loss to Penn State. And after a 52-3 dismantling of FCS bottom-feeders Arkansas Pine-Bluff, things didn’t get better. Akron was never in their 17-point loss to Iowa State, and following a 22-17 loss to Troy which looked much closer than it was, the Zips entered conference play with a 1-3 record.

But their difficult non-conference schedule, with three eventual top 45 teams (including a solid Troy outfit), prepared the Zips well for conference play. Akron rolled off three straight wins to surpass the .500 threshold, including a one-point nail biter over Western Michigan. After sandwiching a one-point win over Buffalo between convincing losses to Toledo and Miami (OH), Akron closed out conference play with close wins over Ohio and Kent State after inserting freshman quarterback Kato Nelson, cementing a conference championship game appearance.

The rematch with Toledo went about the same as the two teams’ first meeting. The Rockets dominated MAC play in 2017, largely with their high-powered offense, and Akron was no exception, surrendering a combined 93 points to Toledo in two blowout losses.

The Zips failed to recover from their championship game disappointment, getting run off the field by Lane Kiffin and FAU in an unmemorable edition of the Boca Raton Bowl. But Akron overachieved significantly in Bowden’s sixth year with the program, and they will look to follow up on that success this year even with a significantly depleted offense.

Offensive Overview

Akron returns a promising, young, dual-threat quarterback in Nelson. But that’s about it. With just about every significant receiver and running back and nearly half of Akron’s contributors on the offensive line graduating or heading elsewhere, this should be a rebuilding year for the Zips’ offense.

Senior Thomas Woodson started last season at quarterback, but was sidelined late in the year by an injury, making way for the dynamic Nelson. The freshman threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns in Akron’s win over Ohio before throwing for just 326 yards in his next three games combined, but he was able to create big plays with his feet and largely avoided turnovers. He won’t have the same weapons at his disposal this year, and should still start the season largely raw, but the young quarterback has already displayed his significant potential.

The offensive line struggled in the running game, but was surprisingly successful in 3rd and 4th and short situations. They also managed to avoid sacks passably, with Nelson’s speed helping in that regard. But with many of last year’s contributors gone, they will have to undergo a semi-rebuild as well.

The rest of last year’s offense didn’t really have a star. Instead, Akron opted for strength in numbers: three running backs had at least 75 carries, and four wideouts were targeted at least 60 times. Of those seven players, just two return— senior receiver Kwadarrius Smith and senior running back Van Edwards Jr. Smith caught just 34 passes, but the big-play threat turned them into 726 yards and seven touchdowns, both best on the team. Meanwhile, Edwards had a more pedestrian season, picking up just 343 yards on 94 carries.

There isn’t a lot in the way of proven talent to back up the skill positions, but Deltron Sands did average 6.9 yards per carry over 25 rushes before an early injury ended the junior’s season. Otherwise, there are lots of young wide receivers and tight ends waiting for a shot, and a couple of incoming freshman three star running backs. But Akron, who put up a sub-100 S&P+ in both passing and rushing last year, finds the cupboard mostly bare in terms of skill players.

Defensive Overview

Akron’s defense was significantly better than their counterparts on the other side of the ball, and despite the retirement of defensive coordinator Chuck Amato, almost all of their on-field production returns. The Zips largely lived and died by their defensive production: in their five aforementioned blowout losses (including both games with P5 opponents), they gave up an average of 47.2 points and 579.8 yards per game. In the other 9 games, they finished 7-2, allowing just 17.3 points and 377.2 yards.

The Zips lived mainly on turnovers, repeatedly allowing opponents to get deep into heir territory but grabbing 19 interceptions and forcing 11 fumbles. How repeatable that performance will turn out to be is questionable, but the guys who caused 27 of those 30 turnovers are back in 2018.

Akron’s run defense struggled mightily. There weren’t too many explosive plays by opponents, but the front seven, packaged in a traditional 4-3, struggled to stop opponents in the backfield, getting gashed early and often for positive gains. Linebacker Ulysses Gilbert III had 102.5 tackles, 33.5 more than the next-highest performer on the team, and added 9.5 tackles for loss. He and defensive end Jamal Davis II (15.5 tackles for loss) provided the brunt of the run stops, but the slack was just never picked up.

The pass rush struggled in nearly equal proportion, but Akron’s secondary was solid. Rising senior cornerbacks Jordan George, Darian Dailey, and Kyron Brown combined for eight interceptions and a whopping 23 passes defensed, and provide the heart of a strong pass defense. The Zips go to nickel and dime packages a lot, so all three corners will see the field a lot. Outside of a few main contributors, Akron’s front seven has struggled, but the back four may be able to pick them up.

Three Players to Know

Kato Nelson

Nelson doesn’t have the numbers yet, but the speedy sophomore quarterback has tons of potential, and is the face of a potential bright future for Akron’s offense. Unfortunately, if the Zips want to seriously compete in 2018, that potential will have to translate right away. In an offense as young and inexperienced as he is, Nelson needs to be special to get his team over the hump.

Ulysses Gilbert III

If the Zips want to get any significant pressure to the offensive backfield, their efforts will have to be spearheaded by Gilbert. The rising senior linebacker will need to lead an inconsistent front seven, who will be challenged to pick up the slack. Akron’s defensive backs are a known quantity, but to step up their impact they’ll need the front seven to compete, and that starts and ends with Gilbert.

Kwadarrius Smith

The rising senior wide receiver will have to become more than just a big play guy this season for Akron’s passing offense to be profitable. Smith caught less than three balls a game last year, and though his production was readily apparent, a young, inexperienced group of wide receivers and tight ends needs him to translate that into a little more consistency. With a good enough season, the speedster could even play himself into the NFL conversation, while leading Akron towards at least some offensive success.