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2019 MAC Football Week 5 Game Preview: Akron Zips vs UMass Minutemen

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Former MAC foes battle for first win of the 2019 season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Troy at Akron Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Akron and UMass are old foes.

UMass joined the FBS in 2012 and won its first game that year on November 10, 2012 vs Akron, 22-13. Akron won the next three games vs UMass before the Minutemen became an independent program after four seasons in the MAC.

Akron and UMass head into this week’s game as with programs in similar states of development.

Both teams have first-year head coaches looking for their first career wins as FBS head coaches.

According to their comments at 2019 press conferences, both head coaches have similar approaches for building programs, including recruiting and developing players who will do all the right things off the field with the results translating to the football field.

Both teams have hard-working players who play four quarters, regardless of the score. For instance, in a loss to UAB Blazers in week two, Akron kept battling, scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Last week, a similar situation unfolded where UMass kept battling to get a couple of scores in the last quarter vs the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers.

Both squads came into 2019 looking to replace the majority of their defensive starters.


When Akron has the football

UMass’ defense has struggled so far in 2019 after looking to replace eight starters from the 2018 squad.

UMass ranks last this year in the FBS in total defense, surrendering 561 yards a game on average, split almost evenly between 284 yards rushing allowed and 277 yards passing allowed.

Akron’s offense should be able to find success this week, not only due to UMass’ struggles but based on recent improvement. Last week versus Troy, although Akron only scored seven points, the Zips’ offense played significantly better by reducing the number of negative plays, running the ball for more explosive plays, and putting themselves in more manageable third-down situations.

The key for Akron’s offense is they need to convert more third-downs this week, ranking 126th in the FBS in third-down conversion percentage. Akron should have regular opportunities against UMass’ defense to have success with the short, high percentage passes. This will help the Zips get into manageable third-downs and convert them more regularly.

Akron’s RB Brandon Lee, WR Michael Mathison, and TE Maverick Wolfley should have an athletic advantage over their counterparts and should be open for perimeter screens and slants with regularity. Mathison and Lee should get one-on-one opportunities in space to make big plays on some of these shorter routes.

The more I see TE Maverick Wolfley the more I like him as an option in the passing game. I think Wolfley could be a big factor this week as I like him vs UMass’ linebackers and would not be surprised to see Wolfley break 100 yards receiving. UMass will run some defenses where Wolfely could have opportunities for big plays in the seams or posts as well as opportunities to pick up first downs regularly on outs or crosses.

Also, in watching certain UMass linebackers versus the Charlotte 49ers, I felt like I could almost sense some of the linebackers thinking instead of reacting, a situation which would give Wolfley the advantage by creating a step or two of space in the passing game.

Akron’s QB Kato Nelson does not run the read-option much but I think he could hit some big ones this week should Akron go that route because versus Charlotte, UMass left some opportunities on the edges due to containment issues.

After the game against Troy, I would expect UMass to test Akron’s offensive line with stunts when Akron goes to empty back field sets. Troy’s defense was able to create regular pressure with four-man rushes by stunting the defensive linemen which caused assignment confusion on Akron’s offensive line. This gave a significant advantage to Troy’s pass defense, being able to get pressure while dropping seven defenders into a zone coverage.


When UMass has the football

Losing talent to graduation is the name of the game in college football, but UMass’ offense lost more than its fair share following the 2018 season.

QBs Andrew Ford and Ross Comis are gone after combining for over 3,000 yards passing and 23 passing touchdowns in 2018. Comis also added 255 yards rushing and six rushing touchdowns.

UMass lost a great running back in four-year starter Marquis Young, who rushed for 3,631 yards and 29 touchdowns in his career while adding 97 receptions and 666 receiving yards.

The Minutemen also lost program great WR Andy Isabella, who was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the second round of the 2019 NFL draft. Isabella could blow the roof off defenses as confirmed by his 4.31 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine. Isabella, who played his first year at UMass at running back, switched to WR then amassed career receiving totals of 231 receptions for 3,526 yards and 30 touchdowns.

On the plus side, UMass’ head coach Walt Bell IV’s background is in offensive football, having spent the last few seasons as the offensive coordinator for Maryland and Florida State before joining UMass.

UMass is still in a QB competition in week five, with Senior Randall West and Junior Andrew Brito splitting the duties. West was the last QB to play and had a productive final 16 minutes against the Carolina Coastal Chanticleers with touchdown passes of 23 and 30 yards. It is unclear who will start for certain vs Akron but I look for West to get the start.

UMass has had some success running the football and its running game will be a factor if the score can remain close enough for the Minutemen to keep running the football. Main RB Bilal Ally has been productive, rushing for 256 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 4.9 yards per carry average.

After watching Akron’s DT Devon’te Jest anchor the middle of that defensive line against Troy, I expect UMass to try its luck running the ball initially on the edges.


Special Teams

Akron’s special teams have demonstrated significant improvement over the course of the season and may be the best overall phase of the game for Akron at this point in the season. Good thing for Akron too because UMass has also shown well on special teams. UMass’ Isaiah Rodgers has returned a punt for a touchdown in 2019 as well as a 75-yard kickoff return.

It would not surprise me if Akron’s Michael Mathison returns a kickoff for a touchdown this year after multiple returns over 40 yards.


Prediction:

Although the score did not necessarily reflect it, Akron made several improvements offensively and defensively last week vs Troy. Akron will have the opportunity this week to hit more explosive plays and convert more third downs and I think Akron will be able to do that against UMass based on its favorable matchups with Lee, Mathison, and Wolfley. I take Akron -6 to cover and get its first win of 2019.


Where and When

UMass (0-4) hosts Akron (0-4) at McGuirk Alumni Stadium at 3:30 pm ET on Saturday September 28th on FloFootball.com (subscription required).