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What We Learned from Akron’s 30-23 win against St. Francis (PA)

There’s a lot of new faces in Akron, and they all contributed in their own ways to get the Zips their first opening week win since 2018.

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK

You can’t take games for granted if you’re a program in the position of the Akron Zips, who have been in the doldrums of mediocre football for the last three seasons.

On Thursday night’s game against St. Francis (PA), the Zips had to pay proper respect to a legitimately dangerous Red Flash football team before ultimately earning their win to get the 2022 campaign started off in a positive fashion.

It was their first opening week win since 2018, and just their fourth win in the last four years, and sometimes you have to accept the win no matter the circumstances.

We learned a good handful of lessons for Akron coming out of this game— especially since there were no two-deeps released prior to the start of the season— which should hopefully give us a better idea of what this unit hopes to accomplish.

In case you missed what was one of the most frustrating— but intriguing— games of the young season, here is the recap.

Without further ado: the observations!

Transfers dominate the offensive production

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK

In what may not be a shock to even a casual observer of the Zips, it was quickly apparent that the team which took the field on Thursday night was decidedly quicker, stronger and larger than the team which saw play in 2021.

That’s in large part thanks to new head coach Joe Moorhead’s aggressive transfer policy, as he brought in dozens of new faces to give Akron depth and potential across the board. The changes are especially apparent on offense, with all three of Akron’s starting receivers, their lead running back and two offensive linemen all coming to Akron from different rosters in 2021.

Former Pitt Panther Shocky Jacques-Louis, who was primarily a special teams ace in his previous life, emerged as Akron’s leading receiver, with eight receptions for 100 yards and a 47-yard touchdown which showed off his open field skills and top speed in action.

Penn State transfer Daniel George was also a major contributor, with four catches for 73 yards, including a highlight reel 39-yard diving reception to keep a drive alive late in the game.

Tight end TJ Banks (West Virginia) and receiver Alex Adams (LSU) also saw snaps and catches for Akron, and should provide some good depth as the season develops.

Cam Wiley, the former Minnesota Golden Gopher, showed off why he was the team’s second-leading rusher in 2020, compiling 84 yards on 24 rushes, scoring twice from short range to help the Zips stay competitive and end drives, something the Zips run game hasn’t seen in a good while.

There is great potential for this group of former Power Five talents to make hay in 2022, but in order to be in those positions, the offensive line will have to get it together quickly, as they gave up six sacks and nine tackles-for-loss to SFU. Here’s to hoping they can figure things out as they get more reps.

The patchwork defense has a lot of steps to take

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK

Akron’s Achilles heel in 2021 was a nightmarishly bad defensive unit. The team finished in the Bottom 5 in scoring, rushing and total defenses, and if Thursday was any indication, there is still a lot of work to do in terms of cleaning up their efficiency.

Akron only managed six tackles-for-loss and two sacks on the FCS side, which given the sheer amount of talent the team has in the front seven after transfer portal additions, is a genuine concern. (Though the good news there is Wyoming transfer Victor Jones was the second-most productive Zip, with eight tackles and two tackles-for-loss.)

The Zips seemingly had no answers for the Red Flash at several points in the game, befuddled by their quarterback rotation, their play action success and the ability to scramble with ease. SFU took advantage of this early and often, picking up five explosive plays throughout the game which often contributed towards a SFU score, including plays of 34, 21, 30, 24 and 55 yards.

This domination by the Red Flash was perhaps most obvious in the running game, as the Red Flash outran Akron 189 yards to 98, with an average of 4.3 yards per rush. SFU also outproduced the Akron offense, picking up 453 overall yards in 74 plays to 384 on 70 plays, and held the ball longer, with over 32 minutes of possession.

What ultimately proved to be the difference was efficiency; of the six drives which ended up in the Akron redzone, only one ended in a touchdown, with four others being field goal attempts (converting 3-of-4) and the last one ending in the Tyson Durant interception in overtime. It was truly a bend-don’t-break performance for the Zips... although, giving up both of SFU’s fourth-down attempts certainly didn’t help there.

Time will tell if this is simply a matter of getting the right personnel installed or if a change in gameplan is required, but it’ll be awhile before this defense faces a peer team in terms of talent. A baptism by fire approaches on that front.

Special teams will once again be important to any sort of success

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 05 Bowling Green at Akron Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As with many programs which are rebuilding, a key thing to pay attention to this season will be the special teams.

All four units often exhibit depth players from both the offense and the defense, while also generating points and field position for a team which will try to get as much of both of those things as possible as the season goes on.

The Zips (as they were in most things in 2021) were middling in overall special teams, though the unit had decidedly better returns than the offense and defense. 2022 should hope to improve on that considering the sheer improvement in talent all across the board Moorhead and his staff have brought in.

In this contest, the Red Flash averaged a starting position of their own 25-yard line on kickoffs and punts, while Zips starting their average drive on their own 28-yard line, which is decent, but could be better.

The Red Flash had four returns, with three on kickoffs for an average of 15.3 yards per attempt, while gaining four yards on their lone return. Akron opted to fair catch every punt, and returned two kickoffs with an average of 17 yards per.

Alas, specialists will be very important players this season, as the offense and defense tries to get their feet under them, and at current, it can best be described as “inconsistent.”

Cory Smigel returned as the starting kicker—though he has no competition as the only placekicker on the roster— and went just 1-of-2, with his only make from 25 yards out. Even granting the second attempt was blocked due to poor protection, Smigel simply cannot miss the gimmies if Akron hopes to finish drives with points this season.

It seems like bloviating to say that, but Smigel was Akron’s leading scorer in 2021, with 50 points between his seven field goals (on 11 attempts) and 29 extra points (on 30 attempts.) He will likely be depended upon once again to be a provider on offense.

Sacred Heart transfer Noah Gettman, meanwhile, had a great Zips debut, with seven punts for 330 net yards (averaging 47 yards per punt), including two punts inside-the-20 and two punts getting 50+ yards in the air, including a long of 63 yards.

He’ll need to keep pulling off such performances to give the defense advantageous field position to work with, as that’s the first step towards giving the team confidence in games.

The progression of the special teams unit will be tangible, and worth keeping an eye on for the future, espeically in a season where it could be difficult to find the positives depending on the team’s overall performance.

Akron has a tough task ahead of them, having to steel themselves for a performance against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Sept. 10.