Three turnovers were too much to overcome, as the Akron Zips (0-5, 0-1 MAC) fall to the UMass Minutemen (1-4), 37-29.
The Zips started off hot on offense, scoring a touchdown on its first drive on a three-yard pass from Kato Nelson to transfer wide receiver Julian Hicks. It was Hicks’ first touchdown since his departure from Mt. Pleasant following the 2018 season.
UMass answered on the ensuing drive, guided by third-string QB Michael Curtis, who capped a five-play, 75-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to Samuel Emilus to tie the score at 7-7. Curtis had a good game, passing for two touchdowns and rushing for 69 yards and another touchdown. I don’t think Curtis will be third-string for much longer based on his performance today: he was a key part of UMass’ victory.
What was noticeable about Curtis beyond the stats was he was a good leader, managing the offense well throughout most the game.
The next series started at the Akron 47 as the Zips recovered an onside kick. The Zips marched down the field, getting inside the UMass 10 yard line, first and ten. Deltron Sands fumbled the ball on the next play, which was recovered by the Minutemen. Akron lost a likely three but a possible seven points.
The Zips defense was stout for most of the first quarter, limiting UMass to 31 yards and two punts on the next two possessions. Akron’s defense was led by senior linebacker John Lako, who finished with 13 tackles and a tackle for loss.
At the start of the second quarter, the Zips were driving when Kato Nelson was intercepted by Isaiah Rodgers who returned the ball 58 yards for a touchdown. It was Rodgers’ third interception of the year.
After a three-yard touchdown pass from Nelson to Dustin Burkhart (the first td reception of his Zips’ career), and two field goals by UMass, the teams went into half 20-14 UMass.
Kato Nelson was a game-time decision to play and did start, but was benched for the second half. It was unclear at this time whether Nelson was injured on the last play of the first half or he was injured coming into the game. He was seen wearing a sling on his passing arm on the sidelines in the second half.
The Zips started the second half with the ball and second-team QB Robbie Kelley in for Akron. Akron was able to move the ball for 25 yards before the drive stalled.
UMass drove the ball on its next position 72 yards for a touchdown, an eight-yard pass from Curtis to Sadiq Palmer on 4th and 3, to make the score 27-14.
On the next Akron play, Kelley was intercepted by UMass’ Jordan Adams, who returned the ball 45 yards to the Akron four. UMass punched it in to extend the score to 34-14.
Kelley had one more drive for Akron on the day, which was a three-and-out. What happened next bodes well for the Zips future at QB as Akron replaced Kelley with true freshman Zach Gibson, who led the Zips on a comeback.
On his first drive, Gibson guided the Zips on a seven-play, 80-yard drive, going 4-of-4 passing to make the score 34-21. Gibson was aided by fellow freshman RB Michiah Burton and WR Michael Mathison, who also made key plays on the drive.
Burton got some tough yards rushing and demonstrated his pass-blocking skills. Mathison converted a 3rd and 4 with an eight-yard reception.
Mathison also led the Zips in receiving on the day with six receptions for 72 yards.
After a UMass field goal, and two punts, Akron got the ball at its own two yard line remaining with 8:39 in the fourth. Gibson drove the length of the field, capping the 98-yard drive on a 17-yard pass to Nate Stewart. Stewart returned the favor on the next play when he got the ball on a reverse and threw to Gibson for a two-point conversion, making the score 37-29, UMass.
Akron wouldn’t touch the ball again. With 5:24 remaining in the fourth, UMass drained the clock on ten straight runs for 71 yards to end the game.
Although Akron’s defense was unable to stop the run on the final drive, they played with character until the end. The third play of UMass’ final drive was a 26 yard weak-side run down the sideline. Davon’te Jest, a 300 pound NT, lined up in the middle of the field on the play, chased the play to the sideline and 26 yards down field to be in the area of the tackle. That was impressive effort for a player of his size to run that far trying to make a play.
It was a shame Akron was unable to get the ball back in the hands of Gibson and company for one final drive to see if the Zips could tie it up late after Gibson did so well in relief in the second half. Although it is only one game, that performance by Gibson might bode well for Akron’s future. Gibson finished 12-of-16 passing on the day for 173 yards and a passing touchdown with no turnovers, showing off great potential.
Akron is idle next week but returns Saturday, October 10th at 3:30 pm ET to defend the Wagon Wheel at home against rival Kent State Golden Flashes.