Midweek MACtion started off with the ultimate bang.
Akron elected to begin its 2020 campaign with a gutsy gamble. The Zips’ opening kickoff never took the air. The surprise onside kick was in full effect. And in exhilarating fashion, Akron recovered but it the recovery was negated due to a penalty. It may have been an trivial play in the grand scheme of things, but the first MAC play of the year proved we’re in for another season of midweek chaos.
Even with new tricks, it was more of the same for Tom Arth and the Zips. Akron (0-1) lost its 18th straight contest in lopsided fashion, continuing a streak of futility dating back to the middle of 2018. Western Michigan (1-0) piled on the points in a 58-13 domination, winning its MAC opener for the sixth consecutive season.
Tim Lester is starting to settle into Kalamazoo in year four, but his cast of characters looked different this time. Quarterback Kaleb Eleby started four games to replace an injured Jon Wassink in 2018, but Wednesday night, he opened a new chapter as the team’s full-time starter. Eleby was efficient in the new role, delivering 12 completions on 16 attempts and firing three touchdown passes in the victory. His first touchdown pass was directed to a Western Michigan star making a long-awaited comeback.
After operating primarily as a starting cornerback in 2019, D’Wayne Eskridge suffered a season-ending clavicle injury and missed the final nine games for the Broncos. The team’s 2018 receiving yards leader made a triumphant return to the offensive side, tying a single-game best with two touchdown receptions. Within the opening minutes of the third quarter, he contributed to the scoring effort again with a 76-yard catch-and-run on a quick slant. In his first game in 410 days, Eskridge totaled a team-high 114 receiving yards.
Wide receiver Jaylen Hall was also a proud owner of a long touchdown. Hall caught a deep ball from Eleby and shed off his defender for a 68-yard score in the first half. Western Michigan’s receivers had no problem creating sizable gains against a porous Akron defense, averaging over 20 yards per reception as a unit.
Even without 2019 MAC Offensive Player of the Year LeVante Bellamy, the Broncos run game was still able to power through Akron. Western Michigan’s trio of halfbacks — Sean Tyler, Jaxson Kincaide, and La’Darius Jefferson — combined for 180 yards and each one earned a trip to the end zone.
In an all-around stellar team performance, the defense stepped up by winning the turnover battle and allowing just one touchdown. One of FBS’s top tacklers in 2019, Treshaun Hayward brought the energy to opening night in 2020. He led the defense with eight tackles and contributed for a share of a sack.
But the most impactful defensive play was courtesy of another linebacker, A.J. Thomas. Thomas transitioned from safety this offseason and brought his ballhawking skills to his new position, intercepting an Akron pass and converting it into a 38-yard touchdown in the first quarter. After that touchdown increased the lead to 16-6, Western Michigan gained control and Akron never had another offensive possession within one score.
But the Broncos didn’t have the game on lock the entire time. Akron held a brief 7-3 lead in the first quarter after a 14-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Zach Gibson. The Zips notched two more field goals in the second quarter to raise their scoring total to 13 (more points than they scored in 7 out of 12 games in 2019), but their offense stalled shortly after. They were held scoreless for the final 33 minutes of play.
Still writhing in a bed of struggles, Akron carries its 19-game skid into in Athens for a meeting with Ohio next Tuesday. The Zips fell 52-3 to the Bobcats a season ago and hope any sign of improvement is visible in their second game.
On the subsequent Wednesday, Western Michigan aims for its first 2-0 start since 2016 in Kalamazoo. The MAC West is wide open, and the Broncos will test their 1-0 record against a similarly 1-0 Toledo squad.