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2018 Week 3 MAC Preview: Akron Zips @ Northwestern Wildcats

Thanks to a lightning delay, the ‘Cats will be the Zips first FBS opponent of 2018.

Northwestern v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

With Nebraska and Morgan State as Akron’s Week 1 and 2 opponents, the Zips escaped unscathed and undefeated. But the first of those two games experienced a cancellation due to an extended lightning delay.

Heading into a tough game against Northwestern, the Zips’ only on-field exposure this year came against an FCS program, with a lopsided 41-7 result. Akron (1-0) missed out on the opportunity to play Scott Frost and Nebraska at Memorial Stadium, but the Zips will have another chance at upsetting a Big Ten foe on the road.

Northwestern (1-1) enters the matchup after its first loss since October 7, 2017. The Wildcats previously held the longest winning streak in the Power Five and second longest in the country after rattling off nine-straight victories, including a 31-27 win at Purdue on Week 1.

In a 21-7 home defeat at the hands of Duke, Northwestern drove 79 yards down the field on the team’s opening drive. After running back Jeremy Larkin punched the ball in from the 2, the Wildcats’ scoring would be finished for the day. Duke responded with three first half touchdowns before the game turned into a glorified punting fest in the second half.

It wasn’t Clayton Thorson’s finest moment as Northwestern’s quarterback, but he’ll have an opportunity to oust the Akron Zips at Ryan Field to set the Wildcats back on track.

Players to Watch

Clayton Thorson, QB, Northwestern

No FBS quarterback has started in more consecutive games than the projected first-round pick on Northwestern. Thorson will increase that number to 42 when he trots out on the field Saturday, impressively recovering from a torn ACL in last year’s Music City Bowl win. The senior isn’t off to the greatest start post-injury, having yet to throw a touchdown pass this season and averaging 185 passing yards per game. He can be a mobile threat, as he demonstrated his freshman and sophomore seasons, but Thorson mainly keeps it in the pocket these days.

Jeremy Larkin, RB, Northwestern

One of the hardest jobs in college football is following up your legendary predecessor. Former Wildcats halfback Justin Jackson shred apart rushing defenses for years in Evanston, finishing with 5,440 career yards on the ground — third in Big Ten history. But Jeremy Larkin has done a solid job at keeping Northwestern’s rushing production at high levels.

The halfback initiated the season with a 143-yard, 2-touchdown performance on the ground versus Purdue, and was able to play the largest role in the offense against Duke. Despite a 14-point loss, Larkin averaged 5.0 yards per carry and dashed for 121 yards in Week 2. He’s been an often-used receiver for Thorson too, finishing second on the team with seven receptions out of the backfield last week.

Paddy Fisher, ILB, Northwestern

Fisher has already established himself as Northwestern’s top defender as a redshirt sophomore. The former Freshman All-American registered 113 tackles in 2017 — ranking first among Northwestern players and first-year FBS defenders. This year, Fisher has already contributed 20 hits and a forced fumble to Pat Fitzgerald’s defense. He’s drawn plenty of comparisons to the coach, a former two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year at Northwestern.

Kato Nelson, QB, Akron

Nelson showed inconsistencies as a young freshman, but the confident quarterback from Hollywood, FL already demonstrated his development in the opener. Akron’s quarterback threw for three touchdowns on 232 passing yards and rushed for an additional 42 as the Zips put on an offensive clinic at InfoCision Stadium. Nelson hinted at a glimpse of his true potential last November, throwing for 322 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Ohio that ultimately sent Akron to the MAC Championship Game. He’ll have his first true examination in 2018 after fighting with a stout Northwestern defense.

Ulysees Gilbert III, OLB, Akron

Gilbert’s clearly the most talented linebacker in his conference, earning First Team All-MAC honors each of the last two years. He finished third in forced fumbles in the conference in 2016 and seventh in interceptions among MAC players last season. Gilbert’s a hard, smart hitter, a turnover machine, and one of the best run stoppers in football. He finished sixth in the FBS with a total of 140 tackles in 2017 and is expected to be Akron’s primary counter to Jeremy Larkin and the running game.

Alvin Davis, CB, Akron

Northwestern doesn’t traditionally field a powerful air attack, but Davis has to be ready for what Thorson brings to the table on Saturday night. In Week 2’s contest against Duke, one Wildcats wide receiver burned Duke’s secondary so often, he nearly kept the Wildcats within striking distance. That wideout is Flynn Nagel, who will likely serve as Davis’ primary assignment come Saturday. Nagel finished with 12 receptions and 133 yards against the ACC foe. Davis will attempt to provide a challenge for the wide receiver. The cornerback recorded both a forced fumble and his second-career interception in Akron’s home opener.

Keys to the Game

Akron cannot allow Clayton Thorson to get comfortable. Kind of like Kato Nelson, when Thorson gets rolling, he doesn’t stop. Performances like his 356-yard, 2-touchdown outing against Michigan State last year prove how dominant this quarterback can be. Terry Bowden and the Zips must take some plays from Duke’s playbook, providing a stream of pressure on Thorson from the get-go. Gilbert and the defensive line cannot give him time on his throws, or else Northwestern will re-enter an offensive groove it hasn’t enjoyed since the first half of the Purdue game.

The Wildcats have been held to seven points in their last six quarters. Akron needs to force Larkin to carry the load for Northwestern’s offense, as Gilbert and the Zips should see some success at limiting the running game.

There are two versions of Kato Nelson. He needs to replicate Kato Nelson from Week 1 and outperform Thorson. As mentioned before, Nelson is loaded with talented, but consistency is another story. His performances have wavered from that flawless Ohio game to sub-50% completion rates in two of his final three data points in 2017. Nelson’s key to Week 3’s game is establishing a connection with wideout Kwadarrius Smith. Smith is one of Akron’s most talented skill position players, and an extraordinary performance by the two could keep this game tight past the first half.

Duke defeated Northwestern despite offensive struggles. The Blue Devils forced opportune turnovers. One of Thorson’s two interceptions in Week 2 was immediately turned into a go-ahead touchdown for Duke, sinking the momentum out of the crowd at Ryan Field and making Northwestern’s offense lifeless. Turnovers are a key for Akron — they were responsible for providing the Zips key victories last year, including the win over a more-talented Ohio Bobcats team.

Game Notes

Time and Date: Saturday, September 15, 7:30 p.m. EST

Network: Big Ten Network

Venue: Ryan Field (47,130) — Evanston, IL

Spread: Northwestern (-21)

ESPN FPI Predictor: Northwestern has 93.9% chance to win

Series history: Surprisingly, the MAC and Big Ten foes have never met before. The conference typically schedule a litany of games in September, and thanks to Eastern Michigan’s win over Purdue, a MAC program has beaten a Big Ten school every year dating back to 2006. Saturday will be the first time the Zips and Pat Fitzgerald’s on-the-rise program settle it on the gridiron.

Prediction

Northwestern handles weaker opponents, but the Wildcats rarely blow them out with scores like 50-6 or 44-7. The Wildcats have struggled offensively in their last six quarters, but a home game against Akron is the perfect time to re-pick up the pace they lost in the second half at Ross-Ade Stadium at Purdue. It’ll be an impressive day for Larkin, who should bolt for 150 yards in his third-straight performance of reaching the century mark.

Nelson and the Zips will be able to score a few times, but turnovers against Fisher and Northwestern’s strong defense will ultimately increase the gap between the two teams. Northwestern rebounds and takes this one easily.

Prediction: Northwestern 33, Akron 14