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What We Learned from Bowling Green’s 31-28 victory over Akron

It was a “prove it” game for both sides, and both programs took it to heart in one of the more entertaining games of the week.

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK

Coming into this game between Bowling Green and Akron, it was expected to be a fairly noncompetitive contest between two teams which were bottom rung in the MAC. With the last handful of games being decided by margins of 10+ points, and both teams still struggling to get the right foot forward, it was hard to see how the game could be a compelling viewing, even with the stakes attached.

But funny things can happen when you take a match-up off the paper and put it onto the field.

The Falcons and Zips put on a very interesting, back-and-forth contest on Saturday afternoon, with both teams showing flashes of brilliance and the ability to score (and defend) in bunches, with the ultimate result being decided on the last possession.

So what did we learn about both these teams on Saturday afternoon?

The BGSU offense looks a lot better with Matt McDonald at the helm

The Falcons were concerned about the long-term health of Matt McDonald after picking up an injury in Week 3, as LIU transfer Camden Orth had to step in for the Mississippi State game, but he looked just fine against Akron, finishing 18-of-29 for 247 yards, three touchdowns and one interception through the air.

Orth held up admirably in his start in Week 4, with two touchdowns and an interception, but the reality of the situation is that this BGSU offense runs a lot better when McDonald is at full strength. His dual-threat ability and chemistry with the receivers is noticeably improved from last season, as he is now at 937 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception in four games played.

Teams have to respect McDonald’s running ability, as he’s shown more confidence in running this season with 89 yards on 20 carries, and this has opened up the deep pass. This was fully on display Saturday, as McDonald connected on 20+ yard passes with four separate receivers, including a 59-yarder to Odieu Hilare to set up an 18-yard score later in the drive. This ability to pass has also opened the running lanes for the backs, as Jamal Johnson (73 yards) and Jaison Patterson (66 yards) averaged 5.6 yards per attempt between the two of them.

Overall, the development of McDonald has been extremely encouraging, as he seems to be processing the game a lot quicker than in 2021 and making the right decisions more often than not.

The Falcons have done the hard part; can they replicate it?

It’s a key year in Bowling Green. With the school in the midst of a search for a new athletic director and a coaching staff who is nearing the end of their current contracts, every game is a new opportunity for security. A loss to Akron would likely have been devastating all-around, as BGSU is in the fourth year under Scot Loeffler while Akron is in the first year of their rebuild after years of basement-level play (with their last two wins coming against Loeffler’s BGSU units.)

But the good news for them is they’ve done the hard part: they’ve started the conference season with a win, their first time accomplishing the feat since 2015. It was a win they had to have to show proof they were developing in the right direction after their loss to EKU earlier this season. You have to win the games you’re expected to win to stay around, and this was one of those.

Now the question remains: can they develop on this foundational stone?

BGSU will be going up against some vulnerable defenses over the next few weeks, as Buffalo, Miami, CMU and WMU are all up next. Buffalo has a tendency to play down to their opponent’s level, Miami is talented but ailing, and the two directional Michigans are both vulnerable to the big play in the air, something BGSU has excelled at so far.

If they can take one or two wins out of that slate, they can make a solid claim on the middle of the MAC table and finally get out of the 10-12 range, which is palpable progress. If they go 0-fer before the Battle of I-75, it could signal instead the start of a new regime.

The Akron transfer policy is working on offense

This is not the Akron Zips of yesteryear.

Under Terry Bowden, the Zips were a JUCO haven, relying on two-year players to produce the majority of production on a rotating basis. The Tom Arth version of the Zips wanted to stay local, aiming for Ohio-area high school recruits to develop, while also targeting players from the lower divsions for veteran experience.

Joe Moorhead, with his plethora of Power Five experiences, has used those connections in the Northeast, Southeast and Northwest to assemble a genuinely impressive roster of skill position players to immediately make this roster more talented on all strings.

It’s been apparent from Week 1, with three starting receivers, a starting tight end, a starting offensive lineman and their starting two running backs all having transferred in via the portal this offseason.

Five of the top seven receivers are all transfers, while two of the top three runners are also transfers, indicating their instant contributions to the offense.

Pitt transfer Shocky Jacques-Louis has been exactly as advertised as a starting receiver, with 26 catches for 357 yards, averaging 13 yards per catch. Alex Adams, the former LSU Tiger, has really caught on in the last few weeks and now leads in touchdown receptions, with three on 16 catches overall. Penn State transfer Daniel George is an excellent possession receiver, with 25 catches for 265 yards, while West Virginia transfer TJ Banks is a physical tight end who is currently the fourth-leading receiver with 11 catches for 109 yards.

Former Minnesota back Cam Wiley (52 attempts, 178 yards, two scores; 15 catches for 71 yards) has proven to be a capable three-down back, while backup Clyde Price III, formerly of Kansas State, came alive this week against BGSU, with 17 carries for 71 yards and a touchdown on the ground, with an additional 26 yards and a touchdown on four catches.

This has all made DJ Irons a much-improved weapon himself, as he is able to pass the ball around with relative confidence thanks to the upgrades on the outside, as opposed to having to make plays on his own. Irons is 112-of-179 for 1,143 yards, six touchdowns and one interception through the air and has 296 yards and two scores on the ground.

They lost this round, but it’ll be interesting to see moving forward if this motley crew can catch some defenses sleeping moving forward, which is possible as evidenced by several big plays they managed on the BGSU defense on Saturday.

Akron isn’t a pushover anymore, that’s for sure.

Akron’s special teams are a revelation

Akron had a special teams units which was just okay in 2021, as Cory Smigel went 7-of-11 on field goals and Ethan Slike averaged about 43 net yards per punt. Their return teams were nothing to call home about either; it’s true Michael Mathison ran a kickoff for a 94-yard return, but outside of that, he averaged about 20 yards per return.

It’s completely changed over in 2022, with new players at placekicker, punter and the return positions, and the Zips are now more dynamic as a result of the turnover.

Noah Perez is 4-of-5 so far after replacing Smigel, missing only from beyond 50 yards while going 3-of-3 from intermediate (30-49 yard) range in his last two games. Sacred Heart transfer Noah Gettmann is four punts inside-the-20 shy of Slike’s entire 2021 output, generating eight in five games, has forced 10 fair catches and averages at least one 50+ yard punt per game to boot, even despite a slightly lower net yard average.

In the kickoff return game, both Shocky Jacques-Louis (10 returns, 251 yards) and Blake Hester (three returns, 100 yards) have shown great ability with the ball in their hands. The punt return game is also giving Akron some good field position, as a change in philosophy has given returners green light to gain yards when they see an opportunity, with Tony Grimes Jr. averaging 14.5 yards per return on four opportunities.

Tyson Durant even has a blocked field goal attempt which helped Akron stay competitive with Liberty.

Special teams can often be the difference between wins and losses, and Akron’s upgrade here should allow them to stay more competitive all around.