Akron goes back to work after a loss to MAC opponent Central Michigan 45-24, with an eye towards continued development in all phases.
Taking a look at things after three weeks, a quarterly review if you will, we go in a bit more depth, getting a snapshot of where things stand. There is still time to improve because they are only at the end of the first quarter.
After struggling the first two weeks of the season, the special teams unit had its best week last week against CMU where they recovered an onside kick, returned two kickoffs for over 40 yards, and made all their field goal and extra point attempts. Although Akron did have a 26-yard punt that gave CMU the ball around midfield, the punting overall was much more successful with 35.7 yards per attempt average.
Akron’s defense took a big experience hit in the offseason, losing a combined 214 defensive starts. The loss of experience could be showing in the early results for 2019 where Akron is allowing 39.3 points per contest, compared with the 27.2 points per contest allowed in 2018.
Akron’s rushing defense has been one of the more consistent parts of the Zips team so far this year but took a step backwards last week against CMU, allowing 189 yards, 5.6 yards per carry, and three touchdowns.
The biggest area of improvement needed on defense for Akron may be reducing explosive passing plays against, where in three games Akron has allowed at least 13 passing plays of 20 or more yards including gains of 40, 41, 49, and 76 yards.
Based on returning experience, I expected the Akron’s offense to start the year with the best chance for early success.
After three games, Akron is averaging about 15.7 points per game. Of the 47 points scored, 28 have been in the fourth quarter, where the Zips have largely had the non-pressures of garbage time rallies.
One major issue is negative plays. Through three games, Akron’s offense is averaging a staggering 12.6 tackles for loss against per game, including 6 sacks per game. In contrast, Akron’s opponent last week, CMU, has a total of 13 tackles for loss against for the entire season, or 4.33 per game, and CMU played the Wisconsin Badgers.
Akron’s offense has shown some ability to throw the football in stretches, particularly on opening drives and in the second half of games vs UAB Blazer and CMU. Akron has really done a solid job with opening drives, scoring 10 points in three games.
Akron’s starting QB, Kato Nelson, has completed 60-of-109 passes for a 55 percent completion percentage. But the passing game is less successful than that number appears because the Akron’s starting QB has been sacked 16 times. If you add the number of sacks (16) to the number of passes attempted (109), Akron has an incomplete pass or sack on 52% of its passing attempts.
Passing game improvement is a complex problem, but I think Akron can and will do better. Sometimes passes are thrown inaccurately. Sometimes there are some short-to-intermediate passing routes open on early downs which have been bypassed for deeper routes that have not been completed. Sometimes catchable passes are dropped. Sometimes Akron’s offensive line loses their assignments on DL stunts or simply doesn’t get a hand on their assignment. UAB Blazers DT Garrett Marino, who, granted, is an all-Conference USA player, had multiple plays against Akron where he was not noticeably redirected on passing plays, finishing with two sacks.
Akron rushing offense ranks 129th out of 130 FBS teams in 2019 with 1.51 yards per carry, 1.71 yards a carry without the QB rushing/sack numbers (still 129th). Unable to run the ball (or throw with a higher level of accuracy), Akron has consistently found itself in 3rd and long situations which are tough to convert. Akron is 124th in the FBS in third down conversion percentage, converting 12 of 46 third downs for a 26.1% conversion rate. Another factor to the third and long situations is the number of negative plays per game, discussed earlier.
Troy is a team with a lot of success over the past three seasons, including a 31-8 record with wins over LSU and Nebraska.
Troy has a new coaching staff this year, led by head coach Chip Lindsey, the former Auburn offensive coordinator. Thus far in 2019, Troy beat an FCS squad, the Campbell Fighting Camels (43-14), then lost to the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (47-42).
Troy is a Sun Belt Conference title contender, returning the majority of its starters on both sides of the ball from a team that finished 2018 with a 10-3 record.
Troy’s QB Kaleb Barker is off to a hot start, completing 65.3% of his passes for 786 yards and six touchdowns. Barker gashed Southern Mississippi for more than 500 yards passing.
Troy’s WR corps is also clicking early, led by Kaylon Geiger with 11 receptions for 222 yards and a touchdown. Five receivers, including Gieger, have at least one reception of at least 35 yards or more. Troy is potentially a bad draw for an Akron team trying to reduce the number of explosive passing plays against.
Troy’s defense is ranked seventh in the FBS with 2.1 yards per carry allowed, led by sophomore Carlton Martial, who, after two games, has imposed martial law on opponents’ offenses with 29 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss.
Troy was gashed by Southern Mississippi’s passing attack to the tune of 513 yards and three touchdowns. Southern took advantage of an aggressive Troy defense with a 51-yard touchdown strike on a double pass, then connected on a 64-yard touchdown pass later in the fourth quarter. Southern also had a 48-yard pass earlier in the game.
Although gashed by Southern Mississippi last week, it is difficult to assess the state of Troy’s pass defense because they have only played two games so far (early bye week) and only one FBS opponent.
Troy’s kickoff return and kickoff coverage units could be fun to watch this season based on last week’s contest. Troy’s Reggie Todd returned a kick for a touchdown against the Golden Eagles. Not to be outdone, the Golden Eagles returned the ensuing kickoff for a 100-yard touchdown.
What to Watch
Sharpen that Takeaway Pencil!
The more times I see the Takeaway Pencil out on the sidelines, the better I’m gonna feel about Akron’s chances. Akron has to find a way to get more takeaways, with two in three games so far in 2019.
Based on the results from the first three weeks, both secondaries should and will be tested deep. The secondary who can limit the explosive plays will have the advantage. We will learn more about Troy’s passing defense with week where Troy allowed 500 yards passing to its first 2019 opponent under a new defensive coordinator.
Both teams have been beaten on double passes this year (pass to a WR behind the line of scrimmage then the WR passes downfield) so I wouldn’t be surprised to see that resurface by one or both teams in this one.
Akron had a few nice returns last week of 40+ yards and Troy returned a kickoff for touchdown and gave up a 100-yard kickoff return last week so this could be a key area.
Akron will prepare and come out and play hard. If Akron can win the turnover battle and limit the number of explosive plays by Troy’s passing game, Akron will have its best chance to compete. Troy is a Sun Belt Conference competitor and will be tough to beat. Troy covers the spread, -17.
Akron (0-3) hosts Troy (1-1) at 3 pm ET on Saturday September 21st on ESPN+.