Following a disappointing home defeat against Duke last Saturday, this week Northwestern faces Akron. The Zips (1-0) defeated Morgan State 41-7 on Saturday after being rained out against Nebraska the week before. They are defending MAC East champions, going 7-7 (6-2 in conference play) last season, but are expected to take a step back this year. Here are three things to know about Northwestern’s week three opponent:
The Zips have a very inexperienced offense
Akron returns very few offensive players from last season. The Zips lost two-thirds of their three player running back committee from last season, with only Van Edwards, Jr. returning. They have also graduated significant depth at wide receiver, with only one out of their top eight targets returning from last season (Kwadarrius Smith). Smith is a deep threat, but the Zips have lost a significant amount of versatility in their receiving corps. Akron also suffered losses on the offensive line, most notably Jovann Letuli, a former all-conference tackle. They do, on the bright side, return sophomore starting quarterback Kato Nelson.
Akron’s quarterback is their most potent offensive threat
Going into last season, the Zips used senior quarterback Thomas Woodson. But he was suspended for violating team rules mid-season, throwing redshirt freshman Kato Nelson was into action. Nelson impressed immediately, leading the Zips to an upset of Ohio. He was inconsistent at times, finishing the season with just a 50% completion rate, but managed to throw just one interception in the five games he started, and averaged 14.1 yards per completion. He can also be a threat with his feet, rushing 95 times last season for 198 yards. Last week against FCS opponent Morgan State, Nelson went 16-26, throwing for 232 yards and 3 touchdowns with 1 interception, and rushing for 42 yards to go along with it. Mobile quarterbacks have often stung Northwestern in the past, but coming off of preparation for Daniel Jones should help the Wildcat defense.
Akron’s secondary is solid
Unlike the offense, Akron’s defense returns many key contributors. The biggest loss the Zips suffered on the defensive side this season was actually long term defensive coordinator Chuck Amato, whose 46 year coaching career ended with his retirement after last season. While he is no longer with the team, the core of his 2017 squad remains. The Zips return three of their best defensive players from last season: defensive end Jamal Davis II, linebacker Ulysses Gilbert III, and cornerback Kyron Brown. Brown teams up with fellow senior corner Darian Dailey again this season, following up on a successful season with three interceptions and 21 pass break ups between the duo. Corner Jordan George should receive significant snaps as well. George had five interceptions last season. Overall, the Akron secondary is composed of talented veterans, which may force Northwestern to go ground and pound this Saturday.