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2021 Week 11 Midweek MACtion Preview: Akron Zips @ Western Michigan Broncos

The Broncos are desperate to get back in the win column, while the Zips look to right the ship after the firing of their head coach.

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK

GAME NOTES

  • Time and Date: Tuesday, November 9, 2021, at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time.
  • Network: CBS Sports Network (A valid cable subscription is required.)
  • Location: Waldo Stadium, in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
  • Spread/Total: Western Michigan -26, O/U 61.5
  • All-time series: Western Michigan leads, 15-5
  • Last Meeting: Western Michigan 58, Akron 13, on Nov. 4, 2020

We’ve reached the home stretch of the college football season, and this week the Akron Zips travel to Kalamazoo to take on Western Michigan in a cross-divisional matchup between two teams that are desperately looking to get back on track.

It’s been a tough week for both Western Michigan and Akron.

The Broncos (5-4, 2-3 MAC) are coming off a back breaking 42-30 defeat to Central Michigan, which was Western’s first loss to their in-state rivals since 2017, and a major blow to their division title hopes. The Zips (2-7, 1-4 MAC) played perhaps their best game of the season last week, giving defending MAC champion Ball State all they could handle. QB Zach Gibson was running in for the potential game winning score, only to fumble into the end zone. Ball State recovered the fumble and escaped with the 31-25 victory.

The turmoil at Akron did non stop at the final whistle, however, as it was announced on Thursday that the Zips would part ways with head coach Tom Arth. Arth was hired in December 2018 to replace the out-going Terry Bowden to try and organically grow the program with local players. However, it appears that his 3-24 record over two-plus seasons was not enough for new AD Charles Guthrie to keep him around. Associate head coach Oscar Rodriguez, Jr. will lead the Zips for the remainder of the season.

It is within this context that these two teams meet on Tuesday night. Both teams could badly use a win. The Broncos outside shot of a conference championship is all but dead, but Western still has bowl eligibility in its sights. The Zips have been eliminated from bowl contention, but a win could be a huge boost to team morale after last weeks near miss against Ball State.


When Akron has the ball

Given the circumstances and the opponent, the Zips offense gave us perhaps their best performance of the season last week against Ball State.

Akron actually outgained the Cardinals 458-425 and used an efficient mix of the pass and the ground game. QB Zach Gibson continued his strong form of late, completing 24-of-31 passes for 331 yards and two touchdowns. His fumble at the end of the game was a back breaker, for sure, but he was great up until that point and one of the major reasons that the Zips still had a chance late in the game.

Gibson has been a steadying hand for this offense when he’s been on the field, and he currently owns a fantastic 71.9 completion percentage and has thrown eight touchdowns without an interception. Sophomore DJ Irons has had some great moments as well, but has had some issues with turnovers. Gibson seems to be the one that gives this offense the best chance right now, and it’s been reflected by his increased playing time.

True freshman RB Jonzell Norrils had his second straight strong performance as well, providing 88 yards and a score on 17 carries. Norrils has really come into his own the last two weeks, where he has rushed for 243 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries.

On the outside, sophomore Michael Mathison and freshman Konata Mumpfield have both had breakout years for the Zips and are a big reason that the Akron passing attack has been so improved this year. Mathison had eight catches for 154 yards and a score against Ball State last week, and is second on the team with 45 catches, 557 yards and three scores on the year. Mumpfield has been just as good, racking up 46 catches for 562 yards and six touchdowns of his own en route to being named to The Athletic’s mid-season Freshman All-American team.

Clearly, the talent at the skill positions is sufficient for the Zips. There are young playmakers on this offense, and the potential is there for a high powered attack. The issue is the offensive line, which is extremely young and extremely overmatched for most of the year. The Zips are dead last in the entire FBS in sacks allowed, having already given up 50 on the season jsut eight weeks in. That’s an average of 5.5 sacks per game, which is also last in the country, and it’s not particularly close. The story isn’t much prettier in the run game, where the Zips’ 3.3 yards per carry ranks 112th in the FBS.

This is a bad matchup for this young offensive line. The Broncos defensive philosophy revolves around getting pressure on the quarterback, and the Broncos currently rank second in the MAC with 27 sacks on the season. DT Ali Fayad currently leads the conference with 6.5 sacks on the year, and fellow DT Ralph Holley is right behind him at second in the MAC with 5.5. These two form what is perhaps the premier defensive line duo in the conference, which is not good news for the Zips.

Behind them, Corvin Moment and Zaire Barnes lead a formidable linebacker group. Overall, this is a talented, if inconsistent defense. The Broncos currently lead the MAC in total defense and rushing defense, giving up 330.3 yards per game and 130.7 yards per game on the ground. The passing defense is similarly effective, ranking second in the MAC at 199.7 yards per game.

Despite those impressive numbers, this defense can be had.

Big plays have been a problem all year, and the Broncos secondary has given up six scores of over 30 yards on the season, and allowed Central Michigan to average 12.7 yards per pass attempt last week. If WMU isn’t able to get to the quarterback, their defensive philosophy falls apart a little bit. If the Akron offensive line can keep Zach Gibson upright (a big if, to be sure), the Zips will have a chance. Central Michigan showed that this defense can be bested, as evidenced by Chippewa RB Lew Nichols III going for 163 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.

While the numbers certainly seem to favor the Broncos here, there will be opportunities for this Zips offense to make plays. Mumpfield and Matheson have the ability to give his Broncos secondary fits. Akron’s success on this side of the ball will be determined by their offensive line.


When Western Michigan has the ball

A common theme has emerged over these past few weeks as the Broncos season has gone off the rails a bit: turnovers are just about the only thing that can stop this Western Michigan offense.

The first cracks appeared in Week 6 against Ball State, when the Broncos gave the ball away four times, and Ball State converted for points each time in what was a stunning loss at the time for Tim Lester’s squad.

The Broncos did well to protect the ball against Kent State, avoiding turnovers and seemingly righting the ship in the 64-31 win over the Golden Flashes. Unfortunately for Broncos fans, the turnover bug has re-emerged for WMU the last two weeks, as they have turned the ball over twice in each of their last two losses against Toledo and CMU. After only turning the ball over twice in the first five weeks, Western has now given the ball away eight times in their last four contests. That statistic tells a large part of the story of why WMU is sitting at a 1-3 record over the last four games after starting 4-1.

The offense must clean this up if the Broncos want to get back on track and get to a bowl game. Akron is 89th in the country in turnovers forced (five interceptions, six fumble recoveries), so this seems like a week where the Western Michigan offense might be able to correct this.

Despite the recent struggles, there is still a ton of individual talent on this offense. QB Kaleb Eleby still leads the MAC in passing yards at 2,253, to go along with a fantastic 13:3 TD-to-INT ratio. Skyy Moore in second in the MAC in receiving yards with 823. Both should be all-MAC performers come the end of the year.

La’Darius Jefferson and Sean Tyler make up a formidable running back duo, and the ground game should be an area where the Broncos can have success this week. Akron currently ranks last in the MAC and 123rd nationally in rush defense, giving up 220 yards a game and a whopping 5.7 yards per carry. This feels like a game where Tyler and Jefferson can both have their way and lead WMU to a victory.

This Zips defense does have some good individual talent. Michigan State transfer LB Jeslord Boateng has stepped into a starting role nicely and currently leads the team with 60 total tackles. He has really stepped up in the last month after fellow LB (and certified tackling machine) Bubba Arslanian went down with an injury. Michigan transfer safety Jaylen Kelly-Powell has been a steadying presence in the defensive backfield, and is second on the team in tackles with 48.

For the Zips to give themselves a chance in this game, they’re going to have to stop the run and create a few turnovers. The Broncos offense has been giving the ball away at an alarming rate these past few weeks, and Akron will have to take advantage of that if they want to hang around in this one.


Prediction

This feels like a “get right” game for the Broncos. After two straight disappointing losses, Western Michigan badly needs to get back on track. A 2-7 team that just fired their head coach feels like just what the doctor ordered. There is an element of the unknown here, to be sure, and you never know how a team is going to respond after their head coach is let go. The Zips have shown fight this year. Outside of the Buffalo game, their MAC contests have been mostly competitive. I think the Broncos win this one, but I also think the 26 point spread is a bit much. The Zips, eager to prove to the fans they’re still engaged after a tumultuous season, will keep this within two scores, but Western will get their sixth victory and earn bowl eligibility once again.

Western Michigan 34, Akron 20