With the game on the line in overtime on fourth-and-10 at the Akron 25-yard line, St. Francis (PA) quarterback Justin Sliwoski scrambled out of the pocket and delivered a laser of a pass downfield into the waiting arms of Dawson Snyder, who reeled in the ball for a 16-yard reception to set up the Red Flash inside goal-to-go territory.
It seemed all was lost for the Akron Zips, who had been unable to stop the Red Flash offense from moving at will all day. The next play, they gave up a six-yard reception to Makai Jackson, with Jaylen Kelly-Powell having to fly in for a shoestring tackle to prevent the score.
The situation once again called for Akron to step up on defense, as Sliwoski aimed for a waiting receiver in the endzone. Instead, Zips defensive back Tyson Durant stepped in front of the pass and intercepted it, celebrating with his teammates along the sideline after securing Akron’s first opening win since 2018 (vs. Morgan State.)
The 30-27 triumph in overtime was result than many Akron fans probably would have liked to see, but a win is a win in college football, and you have to celebrate them when you can. After all, the Akron Zips have only felt the taste of victory three times since 2019.
It was a struggle at the start, as both teams exchanged frustrating offensive possessions before Cory Smigel finally kicked through a 25-yard field goal to open up the scoring account for Akron at the 10:25 mark of the first quarter. SFU responded in kind on the next possession, with Alex Schmoke kicking a 28-yard field goal to tie everything up about three minutes later.
They were field goals which capped off long, but ultimately unproductive drives, as Akron went 12 plays for 68 yards for their field goal, and SFU went eight plays, 61 yards.
Play grounded to a halt over the next eight minutes as teams exchanged short possessions and punts before SFU took hold of the game in the second quarter, putting together a seven-play, 54-yard drive ending in a one-yard run from Damon Horton to put the Red Flash ahead by a score of 10-3.
Akron wasn’t about to let that humiliation stand, marching the ball downfield on the ensuing drive for a nine-yard touchdown by Tristian Brank to tie it back up at 10 apiece on a 10-play, 53-yard effort.
The game slowed down to a crawl once again, with two field goals by Schmoke at the 1:08 mark of the first half and the 6:27 mark of the third quarter pulling the Red Flash ahead 16-10.
After exchanging punts once again, Akron would blow the game open with a 47-yard toss from DJ Irons to Shocky Jacques-Louis, who would scamper into the endzone to put the homestanding Zips up 17-16 with 3:24 to go in the third quarter. The Zips added to the lead late in the fourth, with Cam Wiley showing off on a strong run in the red zone to put the score to 23-16.
The next play was key, however, as SFU’s Ali Ali blocked the extra point attempt by Cory Smigel, giving the Red Flash an opportunity to tie the game with a touchdown and extra point.
The Red Flash went straight for the jugular, as Justin Sliwoski fired off a 55-yard pass on a play action look downfield to Dawson Snyder to get SFU in to Akron territory before reeling off runs of 14 yards, 10 yards and seven yards to find their way into the endzone, with the last run by Deondre Scott tying up the game at 23-all with 3:30 remaining.
Akron had two chances to ice the game with a decent points-paying drive, but instead found themselves in two three-and-out drives, essentially forcing overtime.
Akron possessed the ball first, and it looked grim for them on the first play, as DJ Irons was sacked with no protection by Sebastian Benjamin for a loss of nine yards. Irons would shake the dust off and find Jacques-Louis on the very next play for a gain of 28 yards, and two plays later, Cam Wiley had his second touchdown of the day to put the Zips up 30-23.
From there, it was all up the Zips defense, which found a way to persevere and preserve the Akron lead, giving the blue and gold squad a 1-0 start to the season for the first time in five years.
DJ Irons finished the day 24-of-39 for 276 yards and two scores, suffering six sacks on the day. In the backfield, Minnesota transfer Cam Wiley did much of the dirty work, with 84 yards on 24 rushes, scoring twice. Pittsburgh transfer Shocky Jacques-Louis had eight catches for 100 yards and a score, while Penn State transfer receiver Daniel George hauled in four catches for 73 yards, including a beauty of a diving catch on a 39-yard reception.
Defensively, it was Tyson Durant who was the hero of the day, coming up with the walk-off interception to go along with his two tackles in coverage. Bubba Arslanian led the Zips in his first game back from an injury which sidelined him for most of 2021, with Wyoming transfer Victor Jones also picking up eight tackles to go along with two tackles-for-loss. Antavious Fish and Syracuse transfer Curtis Harper picked up a solo sack each, while Zach Morton and Logan Hawkins had a half-sack.
Cory Smigel had a rough outing, going 1-of-2 on the day, with his only make a 25-yarder, while a 39-yard attempt was blocked. Noah Gettman showed a strong leg in his debut as punter, with 330 net yards on seven punts, with two punts of 50+ yards and two inside-the-20 kicks after a shaky initial start.
SFU committed to a quarterback rotation, exchanging possessions every drive or series of drives, with 2021 starter Justin Sliwoksi finishing 11-of-17 for 162 yards and an interception through the air and 49 yards on eight rushes, while JUCO transfer Cole Doyle finished 12-of-18 for 85 yards with 26 yards on four rushes.
Damon Horton handled lead back duties for the Red Flash, with 18 totes for 86 yards and a touchdown. Deondre Scott had three rushes for 11 yards and a score as a Wildcat QB. Dawson Snyder had 114 yards on just four catches, leading all receivers, while Makai Jackson (seven receptions, 81 yards) and Elijah Sarratt (five receptions, 49 yards) also made impacts downfield.
Defensively, the Red Flash feasted on a vulnerable line, picking up six sacks and 10 tackles-for-loss as a unit. Sebastian Benjamin especially made his presence felt, with six tackles, foru tackles-for-loss, four sacks and a forced fumble. Donell Brown (seven tackles, one tackle-for-loss) and Marcel Mami (seven tackles, 1.5 tackle-for-loss, one sack) also topped the SFU defensive performance.
Alex Schmoke was 3-of-4 on field goals, with makes from 28, 27 and 38 yards, and one miss from 48 yards out. Jordan Slaiby had five punts for 229 net yards, with two 50+-yard boots and a touchback.
Akron will now set up to face a much tougher opponent in the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday, Sept. 10 at 4 p.m. Eastern, while St. Francis (PA) will look forward to a match with Atlantic-10 opponent Richmond on the road next Saturday evening at 5:30 p.m. Eastern.