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Five Things Learned: Akron 39, Northwestern 34

The Zips beat their first Big Ten opponent in 124 years after dramatic third quarter comeback.

NCAA Football: Akron at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

1894.

The year Grover Cleveland served his first term as president, the year Coca-Cola is first served in bottles. Just 44 stars were sewn on the American flag. The Titanic wouldn’t sink for 18 more years. One lesser known event that occurred in the same year in the late 19th century was Akron’s 12-6 victory over Ohio State.

The Zips were then known as Buchtel College, and that win stood as the last time the program defeated a Big Ten opponent... until Saturday night at Ryan Field.

Akron stunned Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern, a team fresh off of a 10-win season, to the tune of 39-34 on Saturday night. Things didn’t look promising in the early going, as the Zips entered the locker room in Evanston down 21-3. Here’s what we learned from Akron’s wild night to improve to 2-0.

Akron’s defensive takeaways were unreal

Akron scored 39 points with two offensive touchdowns. The Zips had three points at halftime. But thanks to a monstrous performance by the defense, Akron was able to post one of the most impressive performances of the year in the FBS.

Three defensive touchdowns in a span of 11 minutes of game time is unheard of. In the game’s vital turning point, cornerback Alvin Davis returned a Clayton Thorson pass 97 yards with reservations for six. The play would serve as a 13-point swing, springing Akron within a 21-19 deficit after trailing early.

Northwestern extended the lead prior to the fourth quarter. But Akron kicked off the scoring in the final period with a fumble recovery in the team wrapped up Thorson in the backfield. The Wildcats had a chance to recover but after each team simultaneously dove for the ball, Gilbert was able to snatch it in the back of the end zone. As a result, Akron jumped ahead, 32-28.

Davis finished it off with his third interception of the year and second of the game. This pick-six would come from 50 yards out.

Gilbert and Davis are two of the most talented defenders in the country. Both veterans are accustomed to coming up with game-changing defensive plays, and the two stars forced three crucial turnovers to completely flip the game 180 degrees. Those two are the reason Akron is flying the MAC jolly roger.

Kato Nelson delivered

Nelson remained mistake-free and tossed two touchdown passes in the 18-point comeback win. His first was Akron’s initial touchdown on the evening, a 25-yard strike to Alvin Williams. After Davis’ first pick-six, he found Maverick Wolfley for 24 yards and a second passing touchdown. Nelson finished with 277 yards, with a good number of them going to the team’s top wideout Kwadarrius Smith. With a fairly improved accuracy and zero costly mistakes, Nelson’s performance served as a benefit instead of a hindrance against a tough Northwestern defense.

Is Clayton Thorson a first-rounder?

Yes, Thorson is coming off of a horrible ACL injury from last year’s Music City Bowl win over Kentucky. But despite his 383-yard outing against Akron, the quarterback hasn’t put together a solid game this season.

Prior to Week 3, Thorson had not thrown a single touchdown pass this season, finishing with a total of one interception after mediocre performances against Purdue and Duke. His running ability has been hampered as of late, continuing to diminish in the statistical category since his standout freshman season. Many experts have predicted Thorson to fall to an NFL team within the first two days of the draft come spring, but the interception issues against Akron — neither were good throws — could severely affect his draft stock.

But as always, experts like his build and his NFL-like movements, so he could always end up as a first round pick, similar to Josh Allen.

Akron prevented Larkin from doing too much damage

One of the biggest concerns for Akron going into the game was how it could stop running back Jeremy Larkin. Larkin had torn apart Purdue and Duke defenses with 264 yards and two rushing touchdowns in his first two games in the post-Justin Jackson era.

Although Larkin accumulated 82 yards and two touchdowns versus Akron, it took 22 attempts for the back to generate those stats. Akron’s run defense, led by Gilbert, provided key stops late in the game and prevented Northwestern from building on its first half lead.

Akron is BACKron

Last year’s MAC East title seemed like a fluke at the time. Akron benefitted from several ugly performances by the Ohio Bobcats and barely staved off Western Michigan and Buffalo in order to reach the conference championship game. The Zips finished 7-7, getting destroyed three times in non-conference play, including a 50-3 loss in the Boca Raton Bowl to Florida Atlantic.

But this Akron team already looks miles better. Terry Bowden’s squad put an FCS team (Morgan State) to rest immediately, and showed magnificent resiliency in a dramatic comeback on the road against a talented Northwestern team. Given Nebraska’s performances through two games, it wouldn’t be shocking at all if the Zips were 3-0 had lightning not delayed the event.

This is one of Akron’s greatest wins in program history and the best win by a MAC team in 2018. It’s time to #FlyTheFlag.