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2019 MAC Football End-of-Season Brief: Akron Zips

It’s never easy to go through an 0-12 season, but the Zips realize it’s going to be a long road to plow.

James H. Jimenez

No fan wants to endure an 0-12 season.

It can be tough to watch your favorite team find new (or old) ways to break your heart and shred your hopes out in front of you. But going into the season for Akron, the expectation wasn’t to maintain the status quo of being somewhere between irrelevent and mediocre. Rather, it was to start from the ground up and develop into a legitimate contender.

2019 was the first year for head coach Tom Arth, and he’s brought in a new system and culture to the Zips program which will take time to implement.

It’s going to take a lot of time for the results to start showing themselves, but there’s at least a couple of things to take away from their preformance in 2019. At the very least, we can reasonably set a floor for performance and look forward to what the Zips might be able to do in 2020.

The schedule

Date Opponent Score
Sat., Aug. 31 @ Illinois L 42-3
Sat., Sept. 7 vs. UAB L 31-20
Sat., Sept. 14 @ Central Michigan* L 45-24
Sat., Sept. 21 vs. Troy L 35-7
Sat., Sept. 28 @ UMass L 37-29
Sat., Oct. 12 vs. Kent State* L 26-3
Sat., Oct. 19 vs. Buffalo* L 21-0
Sat., Oct. 26 @ NIU* L 49-0
Sat., Nov. 2 @ BGSU* L 35-6
Tues., Nov. 12 vs. EMU L 42-14
Wed., Nov. 20 @ Miami L 20-17
Tues., Nov. 26 vs. Ohio L 52-3

Yes, those are 12 L’s on the right side column, which is something you never like to see if you’re a fan of a football team. But it is fairly notable that all their competition were at the FBS level, one of only a handful of MAC teams to not schedule an FCS team in 2019

They also faced some fairly tough competition; of the 12 teams they played in 2019, eight of them are going bowling in the postseason. This isn’t to say they don’t have bad losses. The losses to UMass and Bowling Green in particular are pretty rough ones to take (for two entirely different reasons.)

The Zips averaged 10.5 points per game in 2019, but it has to be pointed out a lot of the lower scores came late in the season, when injuries started to take their toll. They also gave up 36.2 points per game in their first season under a notoriously hard defense to learn, so we’ll see what happens in Year 2.

High points

  • Central Michigan game: With only two games in the young season, the Zips did a fairly good job keeping pace with a CMU team which averaged nearly 45 points at home— at least, for as long as they could. It was perhaps their best offensive output of the season, given how tough CMU’s defense has been all season, and especially with the game being on the road. Kato Nelson also had one of his best games of 2019 in Mt. Pleasant, going 25-of-41 for 288 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. The three touchdowns were his best in a game in 2019, while the 288 yards were third-best.
  • UMass game: The UMass game was Akron’s highest offensive output of the season by score, as they put up 29 against a terrible UMass defense on the road. What separates this game from the others is the fight the Zips put up; Akron fell behind 34-14 late in the third quarter, but managed to make a furious 16-3 rally to bring the score to within single-digits at the end, despite only 25 yards from leading rusher Michiah Burton and having to go to backup true freshman QB Zach Gibson.
  • Miami game: Akron had perhaps their best overall performance of the season in their penultimate game of 2019, taking the MAC East champion RedHawks to the wire in a one-score game. The Zips closed a 17-3 gap established with 6:45 to go in the second quarter to 20-17 with 13:17 to go in the fourth quarter, thanks in part to a disciplined defense, which took advantage of a offensive miscue and scored on a John Lako pick-six to bring the game within one score. The Zips limited Miami to 355 yards and forced two turnovers, while giving up none, and forced two three-and-outs after getting within a field goal thanks to the Scippio touchdown.

Low points

  • NIU game: The Zips were absolutely blasted by NIU, and it was precisely because of a woefully inefficent offense. Three different QB’s suited up and got reps for the Zips, but the leading passer, Gibson, had a horrendous 4-of-15 performance for 36 yards and an interception. It was a game where the Zips had as many first downs as penalties (seven), and saw the NIU defense score 14 points off turnovers via a fumble return and an interception return.
  • BGSU game: It’s a tough look when you get decimated by a fellow bottom-dweller, but Akron managed to do just that vs. the Falcons. What makes this loss in particular more frustrating is that the Zips were primed to hold a 6-0 first-quarter lead, but gave up a bad 72-yard drive in just 2:47 of gametime to trail 7-6. They’d never get close afterwards. Offense was directly to blame once again, as Kato Nelson and TJ DeShields combined for 71 yards and three interceptions on the day, with the offense as a whole generating 100 yards and 1-of-13 third-down conversions.
  • Ohio game: It was somewhat of a scheduled loss, especially given Ohio’s performance vs. BGSU the week before, but the startling lack of life on Senior Day in front of a home crowd on national TV had to be especially embarassing. It was also surprising given Akron’s performance vs. Miami a week before. The Zips gave up 604 yards while gaining 73, and once again rotated their QB’s and RB’s around in a vain effort to remain competitive.

Key departures

The good news for Akron is this is an extremely young squad, so they’re not going to lose a lot moving forward. The bad news, they’ll be missing senior leadership at the linebacker position, as they graduate a good handful of their depth at the position.

There’s also a good handful of familiar names who will be departing after graduation. (All numbers are from 2019.)

  • LB John Lako: 138 total tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, one interception return touchdown, one fumble recovery
  • DB Alvin Davis: 79 total tackles, five tackles-for-loss in 11 games
  • LB Josh Ward: 48 total tackles, four tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks, one blocked kick
  • DB Shawn Featherstone: 41 total tackles, one interception in eight games
  • DL Da’Vonte Jest: 40 total tackles, four tackles-for-loss, one sack, one fumble forced in ten games

Key returnees

This was a winless team, but it’s also a roster full of players from the previous regime which played a decidedly different system. There’s a lot of talent returning for the Zips in 2020, and with a second year under the new systems, it’s reasonable to expect an improved performance.

The future looks especially bright on the offensive side of the ball, which just happens to be Arth’s coaching specialty.

Amongst some of the names returning include:

  • QB Kato Nelson: 151-of-280, 1,820 yards, 11 touchdowns, six intereptions; 109 yards for 367 yards gained (246 lost)
  • QB Zach Gibson: 41-of-81, 425 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions
  • WR Jeremiah Knight: 37 rec., 539 yards, three touchdowns; 400 kick/punt return yards as primary returner
  • WR Tim Scippio: 12 rec., 221 yards, three touchdowns in five starts (mostly in second half of season)
  • LB Bubba Arslanian: 125 total tackles, four tackles-for-loss, two sacks, forced fumble
  • LB Michael Scott: 24 total tackles, two tackles-for-loss, two forced fumbles
  • DL Dylan Meeks: 47 total tackles, one tackle-for-loss, .5 sack, forced fumble
  • DB Randy Cochran Jr.: 41 total tackles, two tackles-for-loss, five passes defensed, forced fumble

Looking forward

A quick look into the 2020 schedule shows a decidedly more favorable out-of-conference slate, as the Zips open with Youngstown State, the first FCS school they’ll play with Arth as their head coach. They also draw dates with two FBS independents in UMass (at home) and New Mexico State for a chance at two coin-flip games, before taking a money game at Clemson.

The East should once again be open to chaos, as Ohio, Buffalo and Miami will all scrap for the top of the division, while Kent State will be on the outside looking in. The MAC East has always been very stout; Akron found their way to a title game just two years ago, after all.

Their MAC West crossovers could ultimately determine if Akron could be in the conversation for a bowl game (if they find themselves in the position.) In all likelihood, it will be another year of development in 2020.

What do you think will happen? Let us know on Twitter or below in the comments section!