The Akron Zips (1-3) have been beaten and bruised over the last two weeks, taking tough losses to legitimate Top 25-worthy programs, but came into this contest against the Liberty Flames (3-1) hungry to prove their mettle and capitalize on some key losses for the Flames with an upset win.
Alas, it was not meant to be, as the Flames stuck it out— much like they have all season— to narrowly take home the win by a final score of 21-12 in a game which was not secure until the late going.
The game started as many Akron games have recently, with an early punt resulting in a quick score for the opponents, as third-string Liberty QB Johnathan Bennett found Khaleb Coleman for a 22-yard score to get the Flames up 7-0 early.
Akron’s offense came out firing in reply, marching down the field for nine plays over 55 yards to take up just over four minutes of clock, but the drive ended in ignominy as DJ Irons’ endzone shot from 20 yards out on second-and-seven was intercepted by Robert Rahimi.
Five plays later, Akron would strike back, as Zach Morton notched a strip sack of Bennett and Devon Robinson recovered at the Liberty 44-yard line, effectively neutralizing the advantage the Flames had grabbed.
Akron would go three-and-out, and on the next possession, Liberty doubled their lead to 14-0 with Bennett’s second touchdown toss of the day, this time to Treon Sibley from 36 yards out with 14:13 to go in the first half.
Akron would get their first chance at points from the Liberty 37 with 11 minutes to go in the first half, but the 55-yard try from Noah Perez, Akron’s new starting kicker, failed, keeping the game at 14-0.
The two teams would stalemate until the last possession of the first half, with Noah Perez putting Akron on the board as the first half expired, taking the tally to 14-3 at the break.
The Zips would once again put together a promising drive a few possessions later, with Perez doubling their score on a 34-yard field goal from Perez to put the margin at 14-6 with 7:19 remaining in the third quarter.
After exchanging possessions, Liberty found themselves in a third-and-seven situation at their own 47-yard line. Bennett dropped back and aimed down the middle of the field, but Akron defensive back Darrian Lewis would jump in front of the pass 20 yards downfield, returning it to the Liberty 48-yard line.
Akron would convert the turnover for points to start the fourth quarter, as DJ Irons would find LSU transfer receiver Alex Adams in the endzone for an 11-yard strike to bring the score to 14-12. The Zips would go for two points, ultimately failing the conversion.
The action would die down until the 8:59 mark of the fourth quarter, when Nate Hampton came in at QB to replace Jonathan Bennett for Liberty. Hampton would lead the drive, which featured all runs, grabbing 12 yards on three carries, while Dae Dae Hunter would find 38 yards and the game-winning touchdown to put the Flames up 21-12.
The Zips would get two more possessions, but never seriously threatened, turning it over on downs twice to end the game.
DJ Irons finished 29-of-52 for the Zips at quarterback, with an additional 37 rush yards gained before sacks. Former Penn State receiver Daniel George dominated the action in the air, with 11 receptions for 93 yards, while Alex Adams finished with five catches, 48 yards and a score. Former Minnesota running back Cam Wiley led the rushing effort with 52 yards on 12 carries.
Bubba Arslanian led all tacklers with 16 stops, including a tackle-for-loss, while Darrian Lewis showed off with a tough eight-tackle, two tackle-for-loss effort which included Akron’s lone interception. Jaylen Kelly-Powell and Ryan Johnson each picked up a solo sack.
Noah Perez was 2-of-3 for the Zips in his first start, missing from 55 yards, and making from 34 and 26 yards.
For the homestanding Flames, Johnathan Bennett was 13-of-27 for 152 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, getting pulled late for Nate Hampton (five carries, 19 yards, 0-of-1 passing) after stalling out in the second half.
Jaivian Lofton led the Flames in receiving yards (47) on four catches, while the ultra-talented Demario Douglas was limited to just 40 yards on a team-leading five receptions. Khaleb Coleman and Treon Sibley caught the two receiving scores. Running back Dae Dae Hunter starred for the offense, with 118 yards on 18 carries, scoring once.
Mike Smith Jr. and Ahmad Walker tied for the team lead with nine tackles each, with Durrell Johnson (five tackles, three tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks) and Tre’Shaun Clark (five tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks) leading the attack for the Flames. Roert Rahimi had the lone Liberty interception, with three players each netting one pass break-up apiece.
Nick Brown’s only field goal attempt of the day was blocked in the second quarter, while punter Aiden Alves had a standout day, averaging 47.2 yards per punt on six tries, including a long boot of 64 yards and two punts landing inside-the-20.
Akron will open their MAC season against the Bowling Green Falcons, agaisnt whom they’ve won two straight seasons, next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern.
Liberty will travel to Norfolk to take on Old Dominion in a Saturday evening contest set to kick off at 6:00 p.m. Eastern.