Both teams were badly in need of a win, and both teams played like it.
Western Michigan (6-4, 3-3 MAC) defeated Akron (2-8, 1-5) by a final score of 45-40 on Tuesday night, in a back and forth affair at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo.
Akron’s offense did not waste any time getting the scoring started in this one. The Zips put together a fantastic opening drive, going 80 yards in only eight plays, with Zach Gibson finding Konata Mumpfield on a corner route for a 17-yard touchdown to give the Zips a 7-0 lead just over four minutes into the game. Gibson was fantastic on the drive, completing all five of his pass attempts for 73 yards and the score.
The Western Michigan offense responded to the challenge, and the Broncos promptly answered with a 10 play, 79-yard drive of their own. Western attempted only one pass on the drive, attempting to establish the run early. It proved successful, averaging 7.9 yards per carry on the drive. RB Jaxson Kincaide capped off the drive with a 27-yard touchdown run, and the Broncos had drawn even at seven.
On the ensuing drive, the Zips could not sustain their previous success. After picking up only one first down, Akron was forced to punt. Zips punter Ethan Slike came through with a beautiful boot, sailing 49 yards and pinned the Broncos at their own eight-yard line.
The long field did not deter the Broncos. Sean Tyler went 38 yards on the first play, and Western marched right down the field into the Zips red zone. After reaching the Akron three yard line, La’Darius Jefferson failed to reach the end zone on three attempts. Coach Tim Lester opted for the conservative choice and sent kicker Nick Mihalich on to attempt the 24 yard field goal. Mihalich made the kick to give the Broncos a 10-7 lead.
Akron’s offense picked up two first downs and crossed midfield before stalling out at the Western Michigan 34 yard line. The Zips opted to attempt the 51-yard field goal, but kicker Cory Smigel’s kick sailed wide left.
The Broncos ensuing drive saw them shift to the air after leaning on the run game during the first two drives. Kaleb Eleby completed three of four attempts for 50 yards on the drive, including two completions to Corey Crooms. On first-and-goal from the Akron two-yard line, Sean Tyler found the end zone to give the Broncos a 17-7 lead with 3:02 remaining in the first half.
Sophomore WR Michael Matheson gave the Zips a shot in the arm on the ensuing kickoff, fielding the kickoff at the six yard line and going 94 yards for the touchdown. Just like that, it was 17-14 and the Zips were right back in it.
Western leaned heavily on the run once again on the ensuing drive, opening the drive with five straight runs as they crossed the Zips 30-yard line and approached the red zone. After an Akron offsides penalty kept the drive alive, Eleby found Sean Tyler out of the backfield for a five-yard touchdown with 24 seconds left in the half.
The Zips attempted to be aggressive as opposed to kneeling the clock out, and their aggressiveness proved to hurt them. On the first play of the drive from their own 48, Zach Gibson was hit in the backfield and fumbled. Western Michigan recovered the ball, picked up one first down and attempted a 50-yard field goal as time expired in the half. Nick Mihalich’s attempt was blocked, and the Broncos held a 24-14 lead going into the break.
This was exactly the first half performance the Broncos offense needed. Western’s attempt to establish the run was wildly successful, as the Broncos carried the ball 32 times for 253 yards and two scores in the first half. Sean Tyler led the way with 125 yards and a score on 13 carries, and La’Darius Jefferson added 81 yards on 14 carries of his own. The usually prolific Kaleb Eleby attempted only eight passes in the first half, completing six for 84 yards and a score. Overall, the Broncos won the yardage battle 337-141 in the half.
The Broncos went three and out on the opening possession of the first half, and the Zips took over at midfield after the change of possession.
After Gibson found Anrdre Williams for 13 yards on fourth-and-three, Akron moved inside the Broncos 10-yard line. After a penalty and a sack, the Zips settled for a field goal. Cory Smigel’s 38-yard kick was good, and the Broncos lead was cut to 24-17.
The Western Michigan offense wouldn’t even need to touch the field for the Broncos to respond. Western RB Sean Tyler fielded the ensuing kickoff at the one yard line and took it 99 yards for the score, extending the Broncos lead to 31-17.
The Akron offense responded nicely, needing only nine plays to cover 69 yards. After a pass interference penalty on Western Michigan brought the Zips into the red zone, Zach Gibson found Konata Mumpfield to get Akron to the four yard line. On first and goal from the three, RB Jonzell Norrils took the direct snap and powered his way into the end zone. Akron was back within one score at 31-24.
It didn’t take long for the Broncos to respond. After three Eleby completions got the Broncos to the Zips 22-yard line, Eleby found Sean Tyler, who was initially ruled to have scored. After replay determined that Tyler stepped out at the one-yard line, Eleby scored on a QB sneak on first-and-goal. The Broncos lead was back to two scores, 38-24.
The Zips offense showed some resiliency and responded once again. Aided by two fourth down conversions, Akron found the end zone when Gibson found Mumpfield once again, this time over the middle for an 11-yard touchdown pass with 9:44 to go in the game, cutting into the lead to trail by 7.
Disaster struck for the Broncos on the first play of the ensuing drive, when Kaleb Eleby’s pass was intercepted by defensive lineman Zach Morton and returned 42 yards for a touchdown. Cory Smigel’s extra point sailed wide left, leaving the score at 38-37.
The Broncos failed to establish anything on the next drive, picking up two first downs before stalling out at midfield. Nick Mihalich’s punt pinned the Zips at their own 12-yard line.
Zach Gibson found tight end Tristian Brank for 27 yards to jump start the drive, and ten plays later, Akron was approaching the Broncos red zone. After Gibson was sacked on third-and-nine from the 14, the Zips opted to attempt the go ahead field goal. Cory Smigel’s 39-yard attempt was good, and the Zips had their first lead of the game at 40-38 with just over two minutes left.
It seemed as if this game, just like others this season, was slipping away from the Broncos. Once again, it appeared that turnovers were going to derail another otherwise promising performance on offense, and WMU was looking at their fifth loss of the season.
Then, Kaleb Eleby reminded us why he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the MAC.
On second-and-two from the Akron 45-yard line, Eleby found Corey Crooms on a deep post route for a 45-yard touchdown (despite double coverage) with just one minute left on the clock. The Broncos were back in front, 45-40.
The Zips wouldn’t go down without a fight. Starting at their own 32, the Zips used three straight completions from Zach Gibson to get down to the Broncos 28 yard line. After two incompletions and two penalties, the Zips faced a fourth-and-25 from the WMU 43 with just five seconds left on the clock. Gibson’s Hail Mary as time expired was batted harmlessly to the Waldo Stadium turf, and the Broncos had held on for a 45-40 victory.
As indicated by the 26-point spread in this game, Western Michigan had far superior talent in this matchup. Despite that, they were not able to put the pesky Zips away, who proved to be motivated in their first game since the dismissal of former head coach Tom Arth.
Zach Gibson was once again fantastic for the Zips, completing 26-of-39 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns. The redshirt freshman is making a serious case to be the quarterback of the future, should he choose to stick around with a new coaching staff coming in. Both members of the Zips young receiving duo was at his best as well. Konata Mumpfield compiled 122 yards and a touchdown on 11 catches, while contributed 112 yards on eight catches of his own.
For the Broncos, the gameplan was much more run-heavy that usual. Kaleb Eleby attempted only 20 passes, his lowest production of the season, completing 12 passes for 217 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. The run game was the star of the show, with the Broncos picking up 316 yards and three scores on 45 carries, good for a healthy 7.0 yards per rush. Sean Tyler led the way with 147 yards and a score on 16 carries, while Jaxson Kincaide added 70 yards and a score on eight carries of his own.
The Broncos are now bowl-eligible for the seventh-straight season (not including 2020), and this was a big win considering how their schedule finishes. With road games against Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois to close out the schedule, there is a real possibility the Broncos could have failed to reach six wins if they lost this game.
The Zips, once again, fought hard. Interim head coach Oscar Rodriguez, Jr. had his team ready to play, and the Zips had a good offensive game plan that allowed their young wide receivers to shine. There is good young talent here for whoever the Zips hire to replace Tom Arth.
The Broncos look for their seventh win next week when they travel to Ypsilanti to take on Eastern Michigan. Kick time for the Tuesday contest has yet to be determined.
The Zips return home to take on local rival Kent State in the Battle of the Wagon Wheel, and a win over the Flashes could help salvage Akron’s season. Kick for the rivalry game is set for 12:00 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 20.