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2019 MAC Football Week One Game Preview: Akron Zips at Illinois Fighting Illini

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The Akron Zips and Illinois Fighting Illini look to improve in 2019 after an offseason of change.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Akron Spring Game
Akron head coach Tom Arth watches his watches his squad perform during the 2019 Akron Spring Game.

The University of Akron Zips face their first opponent of the Tom Arth era when the Zips travel to Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, to take on the Fighting Illini.

Season openers usually involve some question marks for even the most consistent teams but this game will feature more than its typical share, making it a winnable game for either team.

AKRON

Akron introduced Tom Arth as the new head coach of the Akron Zips football team on December 17, 2018, and Arth has been reworking Akron from the ground up, installing new schemes (pro-style offense, multiple defense) with the help of new Akron assistant coaches, many who came with Arth from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (Arth’s last head coaching job).

Compounding the uncertainty for the new-look Akron Zips is the player turnover, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, where the Zips lost 214 career defensive starts from last year’s squad.

While uncertainty exists about how Akron will perform on the field in week one due to coaching and player changes, it is clear that Arth and his staff have the team’s attention--an obvious key to getting anything done on the field.

For instance, Arth said in the offseason that academic improvement was a high priority for the Zips and, according to the 2019 Media Guide, grade point average (GPA) for the first full semester under coach Arth improved dramatically when compared with the Fall 2018: ‘as a team, the 85 players on the spring roster combined for a 2.954 grade-point average (GPA), up from 2.466 from Fall 2018.’

ILLINOIS

Head coach Lovie Smith returns for his fourth year at Illinois with a goal:” relevancy.” At his media day on August 6, 2019, Coach Smith stated it plainly: “We want to be relevant in college football…be relevant, and have a chance and we can live with the results, and that’s where we think we are.”

While it may be debatable if Illinois’ season begins with more answers than questions when compared with Akron, it still starts with serious questions, particularly on defense, where the Fighting Illini surrendered a staggering average of 39.4 points per contest in 2018.

Reducing the points per game average in 2019 may be a complex question but requires at least the following: vastly improved run defense and a more favorable turnover margin. Illinois surrendered an average of 56 points per game in six Big Ten games last year against Penn State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Maryland, Nebraska, and Iowa. In those games, Illinois had a minus 10 turnover differential and surrendered to the opponents’ top rushers 1,617 rushing yards, 8.5 yards per carry, and 17 rushing touchdowns.

If the defense improves in 2019, improvement will come primarily from a coaching change, an infusion of talent from the transfer portal, and development of returning players. Head coach Lovie Smith assumed defensive coordinator duties for the 2019 and has a proven NFL track record for defensive improvement with successful stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, St. Louis Rams, and the Chicago Bears.

Four-Star LB Milo Eifler is a transfer from Washington who sat out last year and is eligible to play in 2019. The Illini are also hoping DE Oluwole Betiku, a five-star transfer from USC, can provide immediate assistance.

The Illini also return at least 10 defensive players with starting experience and are hoping an offseason of work will result in improvement.

Illinois’ passing game has a whole new look this year. Illinois' starting QBs from last season, AJ Bush and MJ Rivers, are gone. Illinois add much-needed college game experience via the transfer portal by signing Michigan transfer quarterback Brandon Peters, who is immediately eligible. Peters will start and the Illini will also likely give some opportunities to five-star freshman, dual-threat QB Isaiah Williams. How Peters will perform in week one is a mystery given that he has not started a game since January 1, 2018 and having only 3 pass attempts in the 2018 season.

Illinois brought in two new WR via the transfer portal who are immediately eligible to play in 2019: four-star USC Trevon Sidney and fellow Trojan four-star WR Josh Imatorbhebhe.

The infusion of talent in the passing game will pay dividends but it’s questionable how the passing game will perform in week one having not played together for long.


MATCHUP

Illinois’ run offense vs. Akron’s run defense

The marquee matchup for this game is Illinois’ running game vs Akron’s run defense. Illinois returns the core of a very good rushing offense from 2018, featuring one of the best players on the field for either team, RB Reggie Corbin.

Corbin showed elite vision, agility, and cut-back ability in 2018 and Akron will have to be disciplined for 60 minutes if they hope to slow down Corbin. In 2018, Corbin rushed for 1085 yards with a video game-like 8.5 yards per carry.

RB Mike Epstein provided good punch last season too with 6.8 yards per carry on 60 carries.

Illinois returns four starters on the offensive line and add Alabama transfer Richie Petitbon to help offset the loss of All-Big Ten RG Nick Allegretti.

Akron lost several starters from last year’s team including LB Ulysees Gilbert III, who the Pittsburgh Steelers selected in sixth-round pick of the 2019 NFL draft.

Despite the losses, Akron returns core players to build its 2019 defense upon including 2018 All-MAC LB John Lako and defensive back Alvin Davis. Davis returned two interceptions for touchdowns in a win over Northwestern last season.

Something to watch over the course of the season is how Akron performs under new defensive coordinator, 27-year-old Matt Feeney. Coach Feeney is installing a “multiple defense,” mixing fronts based upon matchups. Some variations of the 3-4 defense may be a staple.

Coach Feeney should have the defense in position to get the most out of his personnel based on the success he had at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). Last year at UTC as defensive coordinator, Feeney coached the defense to several top defensive rankings in the Southern Conference including first in scoring defense, turnovers, and red zone defense and second in overall defense.

Akron’s pass offense vs. Illinois’ pass defense

There will likely be opportunities in passing game for Akron with the Illini ranked 113th in the FBS in pass yardage allowed in 2018 and given that Akron is poised for improvement in the passing game for 2018.

A coaching change for Akron’s offense for 2019 is probably a good thing given that Akron’s 2018 offense ranked 95th in the FBS in passing yards and 125th in rushing yards.

Akron has the offensive personnel to make significant improvement here and it starts with the passing game. QB Kato Nelson has talent and has had some success at Akron, guiding the Zips to a 2017 MAC East title and MAC championship game appearance. Nelson will need to improve his completion percentage (career 51.5% in 21 games) in 2019 and he will in the pro-style system coach Arth is installing coupled with his growth and the growth of his fellow offensive teammates.

Akron’s offensive line is poised for significant improvement after the trial-by-fire that was the 2018 season. Redshirt freshman Hunter Corne and Shawn Muldowney played in 24 games last year while first-year Zip Bryce Petersen started 12 games. Given that the biggest jump in performance occurs in the second-year, I would expect to see significant progress.

Akron returns some key targets at WR, featuring Andre Williams, who had 46 receptions for 649 yards and 6 touchdowns last season and WR Nate Stewart, who has played in 11 games for the Zips with a 13.0 yards per reception average.

One blow to the passing game this year is the loss of 6’4” Indiana transfer Jonah Morris for the season as reported by Akron Zips’ beat reporter George Thomas on August 13, 2019 at Ohio.com.

Prediction

Given all the unknowns, either team could win this game but Illinois should win because they return a running game mostly intact from last season which was effective even against many Big Ten defenses.

Illinois 34, Akron 24.

Note: All star rankings are from 247sports.com