Akron Zips coach Terry Bowden admitted he was more tense last week in the regular-season finale against Kent State than the much-touted win over Ohio.
“There was so much to lose,” Bowden said. “You wouldn’t have beaten your rival, six games doesn’t may not get you into a bowl game and you can feel a little more pressure.”
That strain in the end has paid off for the 61-year-old head ball coach, who after six seasons at Akron, has finally reached Ford Field for Saturday’s Mid-American Conference championship game, prepared to face the Toledo Rockets who nearly swept their league schedule.
Who would have seen this coming after the two straight 1-11 seasons prior to Bowden’s arrival?
The Zips, who finished its non-conference slate with just one win, did the unexpected by making their first December appearance in Detroit since 2005. They did so by claiming three of its final four contests, including the Ohio upset on Nov. 14, granting them bowl eligibility for the second time in three years.
“We just never gave up,” junior linebacker Ulysees Gilbert said. “Throughout the season, you just saw everyone get closer-and-closer. We created a brotherhood and as long as we don’t quit, we’ll have a greater future.”
Gilbert, who’s posted 118 total tackles, 8.5 for a loss and five sacks this season, stacks up with a Toledo offense that’s compiled over 600 total yards when the two teams met back on Oct. 21 at the Glass Bowl.
Akron is second in the conference with 17 interceptions behind Central Michigan’s 19 which leads the nation. UT senior quarterback Logan Woodside’s eight-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio is first among all MAC quarterbacks with 3,451 passing yards.
“(Logan) is the best quarterback in the league right now in terms of experience,” Bowden said. “His ability to run their offense, his ability to make plays, just a fine quarterback. I enjoy watching him play.”
The running game for the Zips remains fizzled since senior Warren Ball’s season-ending leg injury suffered at Bowling Green on Sept. 30, averaging 3.3 yards a carry. They are 10th in the conference in total defense but is fourth with a plus-8 turnover margin.
Toledo is tied for first at plus-8 with the Chippewas.
“They’re an outstanding football team,” Bowden said. “You can’t take away their offense. You have to find a way to play your best football and lower that amount. We have to come out fast and make sure we don’t slow down.”
Senior quarterback Thomas Woodson is eligible to play.
The fifth-year senior was suspended right before kickoff on Nov. 7 for violating team rules, forcing redshirt freshman Kato Nelson to make his first career start at Miami.
Woodson has not played since but is listed as the starter for Saturday.
When under center, Woodson has completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,742 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Nelson is 53-of-107 for 732 yards and six touchdowns.
“We can use two, we can use one or we can use either,” Bowden said. (Nelson) is a little more agile and (Woodson) is a little more experienced in getting rid of the football. They both play a lot of good football games.”
The Zips finished 2-1 down the stretch with Nelson, who had a monster outing against Ohio, throwing for 322 passing yards and four touchdowns. The six-foot native of Hialeah, Florida has looked uneasy at times but has also looked like the best quarterback on the field.
“(Nelson) has played a little bit like a freshman,” Bowden said. “He’ll take two steps forward and then he’ll just...first game he had a couple days to get ready to start and played a little apprehensive but the second game he just relaxed and played football.”
Bowden declined to name who’ll take the opening snaps.
The Zips focus on two specific areas when recruiting: Northeast Ohio and South Florida.
“Since we’ve started winning more, we can recruit the local players that we want,” Bowden said. “But because we’ve been able to change the culture and create some success, and we’re able to do what we want which is recruit our base.”
20 players comprise the roster who are natives of the city of Akron, including eight graduates from St. Vincent-St. Mary High. Being able to retain recruits in the area and not have the six other Division I programs from Ohio purloin those players stems from the recent success.
“Our program has been through a transition,” Bowden said. “When we got here, we tried to infuse us with some players that could play and we’ve had some transfers that’ve really helped us win football games. But we’ve also had to sell our program.”
Becoming of a salesman to high school prospects, especially when access to games in-person grows difficult for those out of reach, gets simpler as national broadcasting turns into free publicity.
Bowden knows that when viewers stumble across the number of league championships on the major networks Saturday, it’ll be Akron that everyone will be gazing upon.
That’s imperative for those recruits in the state of Florida, who can understand the situation they’re walking into more clear while observing the players who came from the same city prosper in a once unfamiliar area.
For Gilbert, from Ocala, getting accumulated into the system as a freshman made it easier knowing that he had teammates who understood growing up in Florida.
“To be a leader and just being able to talk to them, it makes them feel like they have a brother here,” Gilbert said. “Being a leader in the locker room is very important because it helps everybody grow and helps me grow.”
Akron’s 2018 class has five commits from Florida, including three-star running back Keyondre White of Dillard High (Fort Lauderdale).
The Zips will face the Toledo Rockets at noon EST Saturday on ESPN.