The Akron Zips kick off their Mid-American Conference schedule while the Bowling Green Falcons look to improve to 2-0 in league play on Saturday when the two teams meet at Doyt L. Perry Stadium in Bowling Green. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m., and the game can be viewed exclusively online at ESPN3.com.
The Zips enter this game at something of a crossroads. They are 1-3, but their first two games were quite different from the more recent two. Against Central Florida and James Madison, Akron struggled in a blowout loss to UCF and in a two-point win over JMU where they fell behind 13-0 and trailed as late as the third quarter. Then, against Michigan and Louisiana, the Zips played much better only to experience two excruciatingly close losses for a program that hasn't beaten an FCS team since 2010.
Where does Akron go from here? The team is clearly growing in confidence, but if the better play does not produce a win soon, at what point does that confidence regress back to frustration? A road win here could be a program-definer and would throw the MAC's Eastern Division into early-season chaos.
Meanwhile, the Falcons march into the fifth week of the season with a 3-1 record and an explosive offense. Quarterback Matt Johnson has capture conference Player of the Week honors after two of his first three starts, and Bowling Green ranks 19th nationally in total offense. While the defense has not been as productive as in 2012, the offense has more than made up for the difference. The team is confident, but they were also humbled by their 42-10 loss at Indiana, so while they expect to win, it's unlikely that they'll take any opponent lightly.
But just how concerned should Bowling Green be? After all, this Akron team led BGSU 10-0 at halftime of last year's game, while Jawon Chisholm earned 100 yards on just 16 carries. Now, the Zips have a capable passing game to go along with Chisholm. The connection of Kyle Pohl to Zach D'Orazio has led Akron to be ranked third in the MAC for passing yards, right behind Matt Johnson and BGSU. Also, Akron's rushing defense, which gave up 292 yards to BGSU last year, has become much more stout and ranks fourth in the league thus far in 2013.
On the Pohl-to-D'Orazio front, what really has to concern the Falcons has been their pass defense thus far. While certainly not terrible (fourth in the MAC at 216.8 yards per game allowed), the team has not established a strong pass rush and ranks dead last in the league with zero interceptions. If Pohl has time to throw, his strong arm could allow him to exploit the Falcons downfield -- just like Akron did to Michigan.
Of course, Akron and head coach have things to be concerned about, too. Most notable among those is Akron's pass defense. The Zips rank 11th in the MAC and allow 295.2 yards per game through the air, and that's not good against Bowling Green. Why? Matt Johnson has been one of the most efficient and productive quarterbacks in the country so far. He's 23rd in the country with exactly 1,000 passing yards (250/game) and has completed 64.9 percent of his passes. While his 4-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio isn't spectacular, that's because Bowling Green has scored a lot of rushing touchdowns, particularly in the red zone. Johnson has had the uncanny ability to find open receivers in the first four games and has the vision to hurt Akron in the secondary.
Another issue that Akron must be concerned with is Bowling Green's efficiency, on both offense and defense, particularly in possible scoring conditions. In the red zone, the Falcons have converted 18 of 21 chances into scores, including 14 touchdowns. In their three wins, that efficiency improves to a perfect 18-for-18. It's hard to lose when you're in the red zone five times per game and average over five points per trip. On the defensive side, the Falcons are even better. Their red zone defense ranks third nationally, and opponents have scored on only seven of 15 chances.
All those red zone chances mean that Bowling Green holds onto the ball for a long time, and they do. Their average time of possession is 36:21, and only one team in the Football Bowl Subdivision is better. How do they do that? They convert 45.5% of their third downs and post 26 first downs per game (seventh nationally). In order for Akron to win, they're going to have to get red zone stops, be successful when they're in the red zone, and keep BGSU in less-manageable third-and-long situations.
To me, that latter point is really the key to this game. BGSU has thrived this season on getting good yards on first and second down. Then, if they have to face a third down, the distance is short, and that opens things up for their offense to do what it wants. If Bowling Green can run early in this game as they have in their first four, Akron will have to commit more to stop that, which will expose their secondary even more. If the front four can establish push on the line of scrimmage and keep the run in check, Johnson will be less effective in the passing game.
When Akron has the ball, I said it last week, and I'll say it again -- Chisholm needs to get the ball early and often. I understand that Akron has fallen behind early in its games, but getting Chisholm involved will help keep BGSU's offense off the field and will also make Pohl-to-D'Orazio more effective later. One thing Tulsa and Murray State did versus the Falcons was pass quite a bit early, and it backfired on them. Kent State tried to establish some semblance of a running game in the first half three weeks ago, and they were able to score 22 first-half points against Bowling Green.
Injury update for Bowling Green:
It looks like linebacker Gabe Martin might be on the field on Saturday after missing the Murray State game. He is listed as probably. Unfortunately, defensive lineman Ted Ouellet and safety Josh Pettus are out. I also would not expect Fred Coppet to play; Coppet has mostly seen action late in games, and he's listed as questionable for this week. If the game is out of hand, there's really no reason to risk him in that situation.
As for who will win...
I would imagine most people will be picking Bowling Green here, and for good reason. However, Akron is a dangerous opponent in this spot, and the game has a very good chance to be close at the end. If so, can the Zips finally put an end to years of frustration against FBS teams and even more years of frustration in road games?
We'll know sometime late on Saturday afternoon.