The Akron Zips (1-1) will travel down from northeast Ohio to the beautiful mountains of Tennessee to take on the Volunteers (2-0) on Saturday afternoon, as they continue a season of growth under Joe Moorhead’s guidance.
It’s a game they won’t be expected to win, especially given the context of their recent performances, but in every game, there are lessons to be found and small progressions to be charted, and Tennessee will prove to be the toughest challenge of the year. Can the Zips cover the spread and show some flashes of potential?
They play the games for a reason, after all. Let’s get right into it:
- Time and Date: Saturday, September 17, 2022, at 7 p.m. Eastern time.
- Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required for viewing.)
- Location: Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee
- Spread/Total: Tennessee is a 47.5-point home favorite, with an over/under of 67, per OddsShark.
- All-time series: Tennessee is 2-0 all-time in the series, with the last meeting in Knoxville in 2012.
Getting to know the Volunteers
The Volunteers are coming off a fierce overtime win against Pittsburgh on the road. It was a scrappy effort, one which required the Vols to put a lot of pressure on a hobbled backup QB in order to stave off the home crowd momentum.
The Vols have picked up 492.5 yards per game of total offense in the last two games, with 338 yards through the air and 154.5 yards on the ground, while scoring 12 touchdowns (seven rushing, five passing.) Tennessee has finished all 11 of their redzone drives with points, including nine touchdowns. This will be a tough offense to wrap your hands around as a tackler, to be sure.
Hendon Hooker is looking good early as the Vols QB, with 546 passing yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions leading the offense, while also picking up two rushing scores. Akron fans may also see former Michigan Man Joe Milton III (8-of-9, 113 yards, one touchdown) in spot duties.
The Vols already have three receivers with at least 100 yards despite it being Week 3, with Cedric Tillman (15 receptions, 230 yards, one touchdown), Jalin Hyatt (13 rec., 101 yards, one score) and Bru McCoy (seven rec., 100 yards, one score) all a major part of the offensive attack. Tennessee has a two-back committee in the backfield,in Jaylen Wright (22 rush, 135 yards, one score), Jabari Small (23 rush, 80 yards, three scores,) while Hooker also contributes on scrambles.
Defensively, this Vols team has gotten off the field fairly quickly, with opponents converting on third down just 28.1 percent of the time thus far. Tennessee has also limited opponents to jut 379 total yards of offense and four touchdowns in the young season. That pattern should hold true once again here, as they have a clear talent advantage.
There are four tacklers in double digits so far, with linebacker Aaron Beasley (22 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, four QB hurries) leading the way. Three defensive backs have notched an interception each as well, with Tamarion McDonald, Trevon Flowers and Kamal Hadden each contributing to the Vols turnover ratio. Flowers in particular will be a dangerous player to look out for, with 14 tackles, a tackle-for-loss and a sack in just two games.
EDGE rushers Byron Young and Tyler Baron will be aggressive on the defensive line, looking to take advantage of a weak offensive line for Akron with their speed and length.
Getting to know the Zips
The Zips will be a bit hampered offensively coming into this game with the loss of quarterback DJ Irons to a leg injury during their game vs. Michigan State. That leaves the offense in the experienced hands of one Jeff Undercuffler Jr., a former UAlbany starter.
Undercuffler was part of a number of effective offenses as a Great Dane, serving as the team’s starter in 2019, with 3,534 yards, 41 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on a 56.4 percent completion rating. Overall, he passed for 6,340 yards, 59 touchdowns and 25 interceptions in four seasons in Albany, and should have plenty of experience in guiding the team in Irons’ absence.
There will be a handful of offensive talents to distribute the ball to for Undercuffler to ease the transition, with a quartet of transfers from Power Five institutions occupying the three starting receiver spots and the lead back role.
Shocky Jacques-Louis (Pittsburgh) currently leads as the primary receiving option as a go-to speedster, while Daniel George (Penn State) is a possession receiver who has helped Akron move the ball down field. Alex Adams (LSU) also has the size and speed to be a major contributor. Minnesota transfer Cam Wiley has proven to be an excellent player for Akron to depend upon in the running game, with 31 attempts for 114 yards and two touchdowns thus far in 2022.
The Zips offense, alas, has proven to be a true weakness as they’re a team in transition roster-wise. They’ve only posted 30 points all season, with two scores each passing and rushing. So far in two games, they’ve gotten to about 304 yards per game of total offense, while going just 7-of-29 on third down attempts and fumbling the ball eight times (with four losses.)
Defensively, this Akron team showed a lot of promise against Michigan State even despite the scoreline, frustrating the Spartans to just points off turnovers in the first half. There are a number of transfers on defense as well, with former Wyoming Cowboy Victor Jones (13 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, one sack) leading the attack.
The passing defense has also held up admirably when need be even without all-MAC performer Charles Amankwaa, plucking three interceptions and allowing just one touchdown through the air, allowing about 250 yards per game. It gets a bit unsteady in rushing defense, however, as the Zips have already given up eight rushing touchdowns and 224.5 yards per game on the ground. There is some work to be done there, and it will not be easy to stop Tennessee’s size up front.
What to Expect
There’s no way around it: it might be a bit of a beatdown.
The Zips are simply not in a place quite yet to compete, and Tennessee has championship ambitions and an extremely talent-filled roster. If it all goes as it should go, Akron will be out of this game by the halftime whistle.
What to watch for then, as an Akron fan, is signs of small progress. Players showing themselves to be reliable options and winning jobs, coaching adjustments opening up the game, things of that nature.
Can Undercuffler establish rapport with the receivers after going 50 percent on completions in emergency duties? Can the offensive line figure out how to open up holes for both the passing and running games? Will the defense look closer to their Michigan State performance or their St. Francis one?
These are all questions which will be seeking answers on Saturday night in Knoxville.