The Akron Zips (1-2) continue their maiden campaign under Joe Moorhead’s leadership, taking the trek down to Lynchburg to take on the independent Liberty Flames (2-1), who are beginning the on-ramp to Conference USA membership this season.
It’s been choppy waters since the victory against the Red Flash for Akron, enduring two absolute beat downs to Michigan State and Tennessee over the last two weeks. Liberty, meanwhile, has been a cardiac unit this year, with a close loss to a ranked Wake Forest last week sitting amongst a 4OT win against a hapless Southern Miss team and a seven-point victory against UAB, a program currently going through a leadership transition.
We’ll get a good indication of the direction of both programs in this one, as a win for either side will do a lot in maintaining the season’s momentum.
- Time and Date: Saturday, September 24, 2022, at 6 p.m. Eastern time.
- Network: ESPN+ (A subscription is required for viewing.)
- Location: Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Virginia
- Spread/Total: Liberty is a 26-point home favorite, with an over/under of 54, per OddsShark.
- All-time series: Akron leads the series with the lone 49-21 win, which was back in 2002.
Getting to know the Flames
The Flames are once again headed by former Ole Miss head man Hugh Freeze, who has a 28-12 record in his three-plus years at the helm in Lynchburg.
They’re ailing at the most important position, as third-string quarterback Jonathan Bennett is going to be the expected starter due to injuries to both Utah transfer Charlie Brewer and on-roster option Kaidon Salter. Bennett was previously the second QB, but lost the job to Salter after going 7-of-21 for 37 yards and three interceptions, with a rushing score. This will put a hamper on their potential ability to move the ball downfield, even against an exploitable Akron defense, as Salter’s dual-threat ability really opened up the offense for the Flames over his two-game run.
The beginning, middle and end of the receiving game is Demario Douglas, a five-foot-eight, 170 lb., dynamic receiver whose speed tears the top off of defenses. Douglas has 15 of the team’s 50 receptions over a third of their receiving yards with 272, and all four of the team’s scores. A variety of other receivers also find the occasional ball, with CJ Yarbrough, Caleb Snead and Noah Frith all hovering between 88 and 97 yards in three games.
Salter led the rushing attack, so his loss will certainly be felt there. Dae Dae Hunter (39 rushes, 219 yards, two touchdowns) handles the lead back responsibilities otherwise, showing himself to be a capable receiver as well, with eight receptions (second-highest on team) for 31 yards. Shedro Lewis (120 yards, one touchdown) could also see some run in spell duties.
Defensively, this is a Flames team who has a fairly decent unit from a total yards standpoint, giving up 363 yards per game, smack-dab near the middle at 71st in the country, with just nine touchdowns allowed between three games for a 26.0 point per game average. (Coincidentally, this is also near the middle of the NCAA charts at 74th overall.)
Liberty employs the 4-2-5 defense, prioritizing speed over everything else. Linebacker Mike Smith Jr. leads the Flames in tackles, with 23 total stops, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and an interception on top of it. ROVER backer Ahmad Walker loves to attack the backfield, with 19 total tackles, four tackles-for-loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. EDGE rusher Durrell Johnson leads the Flames in tackles-for-loss (5.5), and also has two pass break-ups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. At least five players on the team notch one interception and one breakup as well, showing proficiency in the pass game.
Specialists are a work-in-progress, as placekicker Nick Brown is 4-of-8, with a long of 43 yards. Aidan Alves averages about 40 yards per boot, with 14 points, including a 50+ yarder and a touchback.
Getting to know the Zips
The Zips continue to work out the kinks, especially on offense. They’re near the bottom once again in every relevant category on that side of the ball, and even in their game against St. Francis, they exhibited clear struggles.
DJ Irons came back against Tennessee after suffering an injury which took him out of the Michigan State game, finishing 32-of-44 for 241 yards. That’ll give the Zips their best chance at moving the ball effectively, as his dual-threat ability can keep defenses honest.
Shocky Jacques-Louis, the former Pittsburgh transfer, remains the most effective target, with 20 receptions for 256 yards and one of the team’s two receiving scores. He averages about 12.8 yards per reception as well, exhibiting big play ability. Penn State transfer Daniel George is the other 100-yard receiver, with 10 receptions for 138 yards.
Minnesota transfer Cam Wiley has dominated the lion’s share of rushing carries, as he should after Akron had one of the league’s worst running games in the country in 2021. Wiley has 118 yards and two scores on 38 carries, and should be able to get some carries against Liberty due to potential game flow.
Akron runs a 3-3-5 defensive scheme, which you certainly don’t see terribly often. It’s a good shout, though, as their passing defense was actually a bright spot last season, and they have a handful of talented linebackers to put on the field.
Linebacker Bubba Arslanian already has 27 tackles on the young season to lead the way for Akron, while the pair of redshirt freshman Darrian Lewis and Duke transfer Nate Thompson have each notched 17 tackles from the defensive back positions. It’s still a mystery where shutdown corner Charles Amankwaa has gone to, as he has still yet to make a game appearance in 2022 after his breakout 2021 campaign which saw him lead the team in pass break-ups (nine) and interceptions (three).
This defense is boosted by a good number of transfers this season, with the best new contributor being former Wyoming transfer Victor Jones, who currently has 15 tackles, a team-leading four tackles-for-loss and a solo sack from the EDGE position.
Akron does have intrigue at the placekicker position, as steadfast starter Cory Smigel was benched after starting the 2022 campaign at 1-of-4, making way for Noah Perez, a true freshman from Phoenix, Arizona. Perez was a perfect 2-of-2 against Tennessee, responsible for all six of Akron’s points, with kicks from 35 yards and 41 yards out. Noah Gettman has been a great upgrade at the punter position, with an average punt of 42.75 net yards on 24 boots, with six punts inside-the-20 and four punts of 50+ yards, with just one touchback.
What to Expect
It’s tempting to say the Zips will be non-competitive here, much like we did last week. But there is a sense here that Liberty is a bit vulnerable at the moment. All of their games have been close, back-and-forth affairs decided by a possession, an indication that Liberty is a team which plays up to or down to their competition. It creates some potential opportunities if you play your cards right.
This places the impetus on Akron to get going early and really place the pressure on the Flames in their home stadium to perform up to expectations. This stretch of games from here until Ohio two weeks from now is the window for the Zips to collect a victory. Putting down some good drives on offense or generating stops on defense will be great for seeing marked improvements.
At the end of the day, though, it will still likely end in a loss, as Liberty is an average FBS team on paper right now— as opposed to an extremely flawed one, like Akron is.