Four yards. Four measly yards. That's all that separated the Akron Zips from giving the Michigan Wolverines a big dose of #MACtion in front of over 107,000 people at Michigan Stadium.
Since going 5-7 in 2008, Akron had won all of 6 games (out of 48) in their last four seasons. They haven't beaten an Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) team since the final game of 2010 -- and only half of those six wins in the last four years are against FBS schools.
And on the final play of today's game in Ann Arbor, Mich., they were four yards away from erasing every bit of that in one shining moment -- likely the greatest moment in program history.
Unfortunately, Michigan's Brennen Breyer broke through the Akron line immediately on the final play and hurried Kyle Pohl's pass, which sailed harmlessly over the head of Zach D'Orazio and fell incomplete.
(You can probably tell at this point how disappointed we are here at Hustle Belt.)
Still, even with what is sure to be a bitter defeat (are there really any moral victories when you lose like this?), Akron simply must come away from this game with a positive outlook. It would be hard to find anyone, even diehard Akron faithful, who could have imagined that they would have had a chance to win on the final play. Nothing the team had done over the last 26 games could have indicated that this was coming, but it did. Win or lose, this game was a tremendous step for Terry Bowden's program, one that he can (and undoubtedly will) build on. Being able to punch Michigan in the mouth like that will be a big recruiting help for future seasons, and it's bound to be a confidence boost to the current team. That doesn't mean that Akron is going to go out and make a bowl game, but if they win an extra game or two this season, would anyone be surprised now?
(Of course, this could all simply be because Jim Tressel returned to Ann Arbor to torment the University of Michigan one more time.)
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The game started out like everyone figured it would. After Jawon Chisholm led off the contest with a 12-yard run, Akron failed to gain a yard on its next three plays. After the Zach Paul punt, Michigan took over at their own 25 yards and took just six plays to travel the 75 yards needed to reach the Akron end zone. Devin Gardner completed a pass to Devin Funchess, whose run after the catch completed a 48-yard scoring play. The longest touchdown of Funchess' career gave UM a 7-0 lead with just 4:31 lapsed from the game clock.
On their second possession, Akron managed to cross midfield for the first time but ended up punting again. Paul's kick was downed by Drew Dileo at the Michigan 10, and the Wolverines went nowhere. UM's Matt Wile shanked a punt that was downed after just 21 yards, and Akron took over at the Michigan 31. From there, three plays netted just four yards for the Zips, and Robert Stein kicked a 45-yard field goal to cut the Michigan lead to 7-3.
From there, neither team appeared to be in much hurry to claim the game as their own, and both teams were given plenty of opportunities to take over the contest. In particular, Michigan could have put the game away but steadfastly refused.
The Wolverines had scoring opportunities on three of four second quarter possessions and failed to produce any points. On the first, UM drove to the Akron 27 but then lost a yard on the next three plays. From there, Brendan Gibbons missed a 45-yard field goal attempt. Michigan drove to the Akron 10 when they next owned the ball, but, on 2nd-and-4, Gardner was sacked for a 12-yard loss. Capi Nordly forced a fumble, which Akron's Jamel Turner recovered. Michigan took over at the Akron 20 on their third drive, but Gardner again turned the ball over. After two incompletions, he threw an interception to DeAndre Scott at the Akron 6. Finally, UM started from their own 28 with just 0:43 left in the first half. Gardner first threw an incompletion, then was intercepted AGAIN, this time by Justin March.
That's four possessions, including three inside Akron territory and two inside the red zone. Those four possessions ended in three turnovers and a missed field goal.
Akron was not any better. The Zips also had four second-quarter possessions, and three of those ended on Michigan's side of the field. Like Michigan, Akron was unable to gain a single point. Their first time with the ball was a quick three-and-out from their own 28 after Gibbons' missed field goal. After Gardner's fumble, Akron drove to the Michigan 45, where Pohl was intercepted by Blake Countess, who returned the ball 47 yards to the UM 20. When they snagged their first interception, Akron drove 47 yards in ten plays. However, Stein missed badly on his second 45-yard field goal attempt. On their final drive of the half, Pohl threw three straight incompletions after Akron's second interception of Gardner. Stein attempted a 55-yard field goal but missed wide left again.
Despite the constant scoring opportunities, the two teams combined for just 147 yards in the second quarter, and Michigan maintained their 7-3 lead at the half.
The Wolverines took the second half kickoff and did nothing. Akron's pass defense continued to make Gardner look terrible, and Michigan gained just one yard on three plays. The Zips, meanwhile, did not waste their first chance of the second half. Pohl led Akron to the Michigan 28, where he threw to D'Orazio for a 28-yard touchdown and an incredible 10-7 lead just five minutes into the second half.
The good feeling did not last long for the Zips. Fitzgerald Toussaint gained 28 yards on two carries, then Gardner kept the ball for a 36-yard touchdown run that gave UM a 14-10 lead. After Akron went three-and-out on offense, Michigan marched right down the field again. Gardner had a 35-yard run on the second play of the drive, then ended it with a 33-yard touchdown pass to Jehu Chesson. With a 21-10 lead, it looked like the Wolverines had finally come alive and that Akron was in serious trouble.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, Akron gathered in their fourth takeaway of the game and third interception of Gardner. March picked off Gardner for a second time by himself and waltzed into the end zone from 27 yards out for a touchdown that cut UM's lead to 21-17. Michigan went three-and-out, and Akron began their next drive from their own 39. On 2nd-and-10 from midfield, Pohl passed to L.T. Smith for 43 yards, placing the Zips on the doorstep of a fourth quarter lead. However, Pohl was intercepted by Jarrod Wilson when he passed on 2nd-and-goal.
Akron would finally go away after that, right? Nope.
The Zips withstood a 16-yard run by Toussaint to open the Wolverines' next drive, and Wile had another terrible punt, this time from his own 45. The 22-yard clunker gave Akron another great opportunity, and again they took advantage. After driving to the Michigan 41, Pohl once again found Smith near the Michigan goal line. The 40-yard pass completion took the ball to the Michigan 1, where Smith was ruled down just shy of the end zone. Tyrell Goodman caught a one-yard pass from Pohl to convert a third down into a touchdown and a 24-21 Akron lead. The Zips were just 4:10 from an upset of epic proportions.
Michigan would not die, either. Gardner had another huge 35-yard run to set up the Wolverines, then he passed to Jeremy Gallon for 20 yards. Akron then committed a pass interference in the end zone, after which Toussaint scored on a two-yard run. The Wolverines reclaimed a 28-24 lead with just 2:49 left on the clock.
There's no way that Akron could drive 75 yards in the final 2:49 at Michigan Stadium to beat Michigan...was there?
On the second play of the drive, Pohl connected with Jerrod Dillard for 24 yards. Then, Conor Hundley converted a 3rd-and-5 with a 19-yard run to the Michigan 27. Pohl then took care of consecutive 2nd-and-15 situations with completions to Smith. The first went 21 yards to the UM 11, then Pohl hit Smith for 14 yards to the Michigan 2 with just seconds to go. Chisholm was stood up for a two-yard loss on third down, and Akron took a timeout with :05 left and a 4th down from the Michigan 4 awaiting them. You know the rest.
Pohl completed only half (25) of his 49 passes, but those completions accumulated 311 yards and went for two touchdowns. In fact, his game was arguably better than Gardner's, at least through the air. Gardner went just 16-for-30, had just 248 yards passing, and although Gardner also had two touchdowns, he had more interceptions (three) than Pohl.
Smith ended the game with 125 yards receiving on five catches, while D'Orazio had a six-catch, 97-yard, one touchdown game.
On the ground, Chisholm carried 15 times for 58 yards, and Hundley added 38 yards on nine carries.
Aside from his passing stats for the Wolverines, Gardner led all players with 103 net yards rushing on 10 carries. He did have a rushing score but also had a fumble. In fact, Gardner accounted for all four of Michigan's turnovers. Toussaint finished his day with 71 net yards on 19 carries, one of which was for a touchdown. Of those 71 yards, 24 came on one run.
Gardner hooked up with eight different receivers, but of those, only Gallon had more than two catches. Gallon's day concluded with six receptions for 66 yards.
While the ultimate result is disappointing for Akron (and the Mid-American Conference), the game was close and fun, and Akron played as well as they have in a long, long time. They play at home next weekend against Louisiana-Lafayette and will attempt to use the momentum from this game to even their record at 2-2 before a rough start to their MAC schedule -- they play Bowling Green, Ohio and Northern Illinois in their first three league games.
Michigan will have to put this behind them quickly; their game next week is on the road against Connecticut. The 3-0 Wolverines begin their Big Ten schedule in three weeks at home against Minnesota.