Western Michigan and Akron both entered this week in a bit of turmoil, to say the least.
The Broncos were coming off of arguably their worst performance of the season, giving away a 14-0 lead to rival Central Michigan en route to a 42-30 defeat. Akron, on the other hand, had just turned in perhaps its best performance of the season in a narrow 31-25 loss to defending MAC champion Ball State. The good effort apparently was not enough for the Akron administration, as head coach Tom Arth was relieved of his duties just 48 hours later.
Both of these teams entered this matchup in search of a victory, and it was ultimately the Broncos who came out on top, outlasting the Zips 45-40. While the Broncos may have won the game, Akron may actually be the team who feels better about themselves after this matchup. Coming in as 26-point underdogs, the Zips gave the Broncos all they could handle in defeat.
Both teams still have issues to address, and both can also take away some positives from this game. Let’s take a look at what we learned in this matchup.
The Broncos are bowl eligible, but something still seems off
With the victory over Akron, Western Michigan has reached the six-win plateau and is bowl eligible for the third time in the Tim Lester era. That is certainly no small feat, and the Broncos still have the opportunity to get to eight wins on the season.
Even with that said, this does not feel like a “feel good” win.
Playing against an inferior opponent who just lost their head coach, the Broncos could not create any separation from the Zips. Akron QB Zach Gibson carved up the WMU secondary to the tune of 305 yards and two scores, and Zips receivers Konata Mumpfield (11 catches, 122, yards, two scores) and Michael Mathison (eight carries, 112 yards) did just about whatever they wanted against the Broncos secondary.
QB Kaleb Eleby threw his second interception in as many weeks, on top of his two lost fumbles last week against Central Michigan. After turning the ball over only twice through the first five weeks of the season, the Broncos have turned the ball over ten times now in their last five contests.
This team is too talented to struggle this much. After their 24-17 win over Buffalo in Week 5, the Broncos looked like the favorite in the MAC. That is no longer the case. Even with this victory getting the Broncos back to 3-3 in the MAC, the possibility of a division championship and trip to Ford Field is all but off of the table unless something will happens. That has to be a disappointment for this team and the Western Michigan fanbase.
Akron has a bright young core, if they can keep them together
The timing of Tom Arth’s firing is a bit unfortunate, in my opinion. On one hand, I get it. New AD Charles Guthrie came in this summer eager to put his imprint on the Zips athletic department. It’s a common narrative in college athletics, when a new athletic director comes in and wants to hire coaches of their choosing to lead their highest profile programs. It seems as if that’s what happened here.
In my opinion, Arth got the short end of the stick here. This was a total rebuild, as evidenced by the Zips 0-12 record in Arth’s first season in 2019. Last was obviously effected drastically by the ongoing pandemic in a season which initially wasn’t supposed to happen. Even still, the Zips played hard for Arth and defeated Bowling Green to give Arth his first win as Akron head coach. This season, the signs of progress continued to be present. The Zips held an early 7-0 lead at Ohio State, defeated Bowling Green on the road, and gave Ball State and Western Michigan all they could handle. This team is young, but they play hard.
The young talent at the skill positions on offense is something to be legitimately excited about. Zach Gibson, a third-year freshman continued his fantastic form against the Broncos, and his 2021 stat line is stellar: 1,151 yards, 69.9 percent completion, 10 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Sophomore QB DJ Irons has been solid as well, completing 65 percent of his passes while also providing a dual threat element.
True freshman RB Jonzell Norrils has really broken out in the last three weeks, and leads the team with 433 yards and four scores on 89 carries. The young receiving duo of sophomore Michael Mathison and freshman Konata Mumpfield have combined for 1,353 yards and 11 touchdowns on 110 catches.
I say all of this to say, there is a ton of young potential on this offense. You can see a core group of leaders emerging, and it would be a shame to see them enter the transfer portal and continue their careers elsewhere. This is an extremely important hire for Guthrie, as Akron badly needs to generate some excitement in their football program. There is a blueprint for success here with all of this young talent.
Arth’s undoing appears to have been the lack of development along the offensive and defensive lines. The Akron offensive line is among the worst in the country this year, having allowed 53 sacks (most in the country) and failing to generate any push in the run game (the Zips average a paltry 3.3 yards per rush).
Akron is at a crossroads.
If the Zips can hire the right coach who can convince this core group to stay and harness their talents appropriately, Akron could see some drastic improvement in the next few years. That’s a big “if” to be sure, but the talent level on this team has undeniably been raised by Arth. It will be interesting to see if his successor can come in and take advantage of that.