Akron heads to Beaver Stadium this Saturday for the first home game of James Franklin's Penn State career. It's the Zips' first trip to State College since 2009, and, as it turns out, that might as well have been a decade ago. At least, that's what Brandon Hickey, who covers Akron for SBN MAC blog Hustle Belt says. Brandon's helped shed some light on the inner workings of what might be a tougher out than we've come to expect from our yearly MACrifices. While you're on Hustle Belt, check out my answers to Brandon's questions, including my prediction for the game.
Anyway, the questions:
Black Shoe Diaries: Terry Bowden has Akron on the upswing. With an improvement from 1-1 to 5-7 between 2012 and 2013, what's the goal--and the ceiling--for 2014?
Brandon Hickey: Bowden has definitely ignited a spark both in the fan base and the program in general. The name is there obviously, but now with the wins starting to come it's cemented the fans' thoughts that he is the right man for the job. I think the goal for this season is to get to six wins and be bowl eligible. Now that may seem like a low starting point, when you look at where this program has been, six wins is an impeccable season. Akron went 1-11 three straight years and hasn't been to a bowl game since 2005. That's the fourth longest drought behind New Mexico State, Eastern Michigan and UAB. The ceiling is probably 8-9 wins.
Especially with the news that just came out today (Bowling Green Starting QB Matt Johnson is out for the year) the MAC East (and MAC overall) is wide open. Ohio and Ball State are breaking in new quarterbacks and Akron gets bottom feeders Eastern Michigan, Miami, and UMass at home.Six wins are to be had with this schedule, and with questions now at Bowling Green that could also be a winnable game. It seems improbable, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a seven or eight win Akron squad this season.
BSD: Akron beat up on Howard, an FCS team, last week. How much could you take from the blowout, and what questions still linger?
BH: There isn't a lot that you can take from a blowout over a mediocre FCS team. One player that did stand out was quarterback Kyle Pohl. Pohl completed four of his first five passes with three of them going for touchdowns. He looked really established and comfortable in the pocket. It's clear that another year in the system paid off for him and he'll do much better than his mediocre 2012 numbers of 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The defense should get some praise as well, as it is tough to shut any team out. Some questions do remain though, as the offensive line is still coming together and needs to be at it's best against a stout Penn State defensive line. Akron's best running back, Jawon Chisholm, had a quiet game against Howard with only 21 yards on nine attempts. He'll need to get more involved this week.
BSD: It seems like Akron doesn't really bother trying to run the ball--the pass/run ratio was 44-28 last week in a game you won by 41. What sort of offensive schemes are favored by offensive coordinator A.J. Milwee?
BH: It's definitely a four-wide pass, pass, pass offense. Akron loves to throw in as many crossing routes as they can on a play to try and throw the defense off and also because those are usually high percentage passes. You'll even see the running backs split out wide a few times and they'll look for dump passes when lined up in the backfield. It's definitely a high-powered offense engineered to score, and Bowden is finally getting the right horses to make sure it works.
BSD: It's always fun to see old names like Chuck Amato pop up as coordinators all these years after he left NC State. How's he done at Akron, and which players will he be leaning on Saturday?
BH: Chuck Amato has been a recognizable figure on the sidelines at Akron and not just for his sunglasses. Amato's name may not resonate with his players like it would have in the mid-2000s, but they still respect what he has done. The defense was awful his first year at Akron, but now the unit continues to improve and has built itself around transfers. Washington State transfer C.J. Mizell is one to watch out for; he lost 30 pounds in the offseason and is a handful. Jatavis Brown and Justin March are also strong linebackers who can get into the backfield. Ohio State transfer Se'Von Pittman is another one to watch - he led the team in tackles for loss last week.
BSD: If Akron is going to beat Penn State, what will have to go right for the Zips?
BH: I'm not sure that everything has to go right for the Zips to win on Saturday, but Akron needs to do well in every facet of the game. Turnovers were problems last year and if Kyle Pohl can limit any kind of risky passes I think Akron will be in it. The defense needs to play well and put some pressure on Hackenburg to make tough throws that may lead to interceptions. Also, the special teams need to be perfect. Akron has had a constant struggle to try and find a kicker and it isn't looking any better, as Tom O'Leary missed a 25 yard field goal and an extra point. Those are the points that Akron can't afford to miss out on against Penn State.
BSD: How do you see this one shaping up?
BH: I see a closer than expected game. I think there's a different aura about this Akron team than there was in 2009 when the Zips came into Beaver Stadium and lost 31-7. I don't think it's necessary a trap game like Yahoo's Pat Forde does, but I don't think it'll be a blowout either. I'm thinking 30-21 Penn State, who pulls away late.
Thanks again, Brandon, and remember to visit Hustle Belt for all your MAC-related needs all season long.