When Akron arrives through the gates of Memorial Stadium on Saturday evening, the Zips can expect one of the most deafening atmospheres the venue has seen in its history. There will be approximately 90,000 Nebraskans decked in red from head to toe, waiting for the return of the Cornhuskers of yesteryear.
Nebraska hit an out-of-the-park grand slam in December when the school announced it had hired Scott Frost. Shortly after Frost was hired, he returned to his former team and delivered a national championship to UCF. Now back in Lincoln, there is Nick Saban-esque hype surrounding the young coach, who led the 1997 Huskers to their most recent national championship.
Akron has been in a similar situation pitted up against a Big Ten foe before. Terry Bowden and the Zips traveled to Happy Valley last fall to open the season in one of college football’s most intense environments. However, Akron failed to score a single point, but the Zips would recover with a 6-2 conference record and a MAC East title claim.
It’s Akron’s turn to prove 2017 wasn’t a fluke. The Zips benefitted from a rather easy conference schedule but they did deliver in the two most important games on their calendar — a visit to Western Michigan and a home stand against a feisty Ohio Bobcats offense. But Akron fell back to earth in the postseason, getting walloped by Toledo in Detroit and destroyed by Florida Atlantic in the Boca Raton Bowl to finish 7-7.
Akron’s 7-7 mark is still better than the 4-8 result Nebraska posted a year ago. Cornhuskers faithful are very familiar with the last time a MAC school visited Lincoln in September. Northern Illinois’ defense wrecked the Big Red en route to a 21-17 win, a win which caused Nebraska to fire its athletic director and start a coaching search, which was completed by the first week of December. So it is possible for the conference to win in the venue, but it will be much harder against a head coach who owns the longest winning streak in the country.
Players to Watch
Adrian Martinez, QB, Nebraska
Meet Scott Frost’s new McKenzie Milton project. Martinez is a true freshman quarterback from Fresno, CA, a signal caller that is expected to be a force in the run game. While he shares no relation to former Cornhusker quarterback Taylor Martinez, he could take the field with a similar dual-threat style of play. He’s 6’3”, 205 pounds, and was rated a 4-star recruit last year. Martinez held offers from just about every school in the country, ranging from Alabama to Oklahoma to Colorado to Nevada. There will be plenty of hype for the freshman quarterback on Saturday, and it’s up to Akron’s defense to let the nerves settle in early.
Stanley Morgan Jr., WR, Nebraska
He shares no relation to the similarly named 2-time All-Pro wide receiver from the New England Patriots, but Nebraska’s Morgan is also a talented wideout. Morgan led the Huskers in receptions (61), yards (986), and touchdowns (10) a season ago, as their most dominant skill position player. The senior from New Orleans eclipsed the century mark five times in 2017, posting a career high of 185 yards in an offensive shootout against Penn State. Morgan has stepped away from his kick return duties from past seasons, but No. 8 remains the most impactful veteran on Nebraska’s roster.
Kato Nelson, QB, Akron
Kato Nelson experienced some growing pains at the quarterback position as a freshman, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more confident quarterback in the nation than the cannon-armed athlete from Hollywood, FL. Nelson pieced together a performance for the ages last November, toying with the Ohio defense for 322 yards, four touchdowns, and an essential MAC East title. He started each of the last five games for the Zips, throwing eight touchdowns and just one interception in the time span. It’s clear that Nelson aims to be a dual threat quarterback, as he has registered 10 rushing attempts in each of his five starts. The ground gains have yet to come, but it’s certainly not too late for the sophomore to improve in that regard.
Kwadarrius Smith, WR, Akron
Smith was the talented Akron receiver who allowed Nelson’s legendary performance against Ohio to occur. He corralled three balls for 132 yards and two scores in the vital upset. The leading receiver from 2017 is definitely undersized at 5’9” and 170 but remains one of the fastest athletes on the field at all times. Smith was a track-and-field participant at his original college, Missouri, and has valuable experience at the cornerback position from high school. For any streak route, you can count on the ball heading in Smith’s vicinity.
Ulysees Gilbert III, OLB, Akron
Gilbert is probably the most talented defender in this matchup, and that includes all members on Nebraska’s roster. The senior outside linebacker has done it all during his time as a Zip. Gilbert finished sixth in the FBS with 140 total tackles as a junior, just one year after ranking 14th in the category as a sophomore. He is Akron’s chief turnover producer, forcing three fumbles in 2016 and intercepting three passes in 2017. At 6’1” and 230 pounds, he hits like a freight train. His 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2017 are enough to make any opposing quarterback or running back sweat in the backfield.
Keys to the Game
Keep it low scoring, Akron. For Akron to beat Nebraska at Memorial Stadium, a good blueprint for an upset is to replicate what Northern Illinois did there one September ago. The Huskies scored two defensive touchdowns in the contest, not allowing Nebraska’s offense to strike gold in the end zone until the middle of the second half. Gilbert — along with a talented secondary of Kyron Brown, Shawn Featherstone, and Alvin Davis — are the key players Bowden will need to make stops and create turnovers to prevent Nebraska from any offensive success. Akron’s offense, which finished with five games of under 15 points in 2017, will need all the help it can get from the defense in order to pull off an upset build.
Bring back the Ohio version of Kato Nelson. Out of Nelson’s six main data points as a starter, none stand out like that one Tuesday night at InfoCision Stadium against the Bobcats. Nelson never appears to be in fear or intimidated and his confidence is a definite boost to Akron’s offense. He needs to make smart throws, and increase that completion percentage, which currently reads like a perfect coin toss — 50.0%. The Zips aren’t particularly skilled at moving down the field in long, steady drives, so offensively, it will be about the home run plays.
Time and Date: Saturday, September 1, 8:00 p.m. EST
Venue: Memorial Stadium (85,458) — Lincoln, NE
Spread: Nebraska (-26)
ESPN FPI Predictor: Nebraska has 92.3% chance to win
Series history: It’s not surprising that Bowling Green and Oregon have never settled it on a football field before, given the rarity of a Pac-12 vs. MAC non-conference matchup. Lots of travel is involved, and the Falcons traditionally pack their bags for Big Ten sites in the fall. This will be the first-ever meeting between the bird opponents, and the winner will improve to 1-0 in a series that probably won’t continue any time in the foreseeable future.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the works of the reigning Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year. Frost has only put on the headset as a head coach for two seasons, but what a two seasons those were. He inherited an 0-12 UCF program and revamped the Knights into 13-0 national champions in such little time. Nebraska traditionally recruits well, and given Frost’s magic at Oregon and UCF, the Cornhuskers could be in for a drastic improvement.
The game will start slow, but Nebraska will slowly gain ground on Akron, winning at Memorial Stadium by about three or four touchdowns. Turnovers won’t play in the Zips’ favor, and the hype at Memorial Stadium will be insane. The Frost era begins with a victory, while Akron struggles in yet another non-conference game against a Power Five opponent.
Prediction: Nebraska 41, Akron 14