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2023 MAC Football Week 7 Game Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas vs. Akron Zips

The Chips and Zips have played each other close in three of the last four contests; will 2023 fit the pattern or be the breakout?

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Michigan State Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

When the Akron Zips (1-5, 0-2 MAC) take the field against the Central Michigan Chippewas (3-3, 1-1 MAC) on Saturday afternoon, it will be 364 days since the two teams last met.

In that contest so long ago, the Chips had to rely on capitalizing on a fumble by Akron in the late going to take a one-score victory, with future NFL’er Thomas Incoom crossing the goal line from 63 yards out to break the 21-21 tie.

Now, Akron once again enters the game in a must-win situation, hoping to keep their postseason hopes— and fighting spirits— alive after a run of rotten luck has left the group decimated. Their loss to NIU last week could not have been worse; they had no reply for a ferocious run game and their lack of depth finally got to them after several weeks of holding on by a string.

The Chips, meanwhile, are reeling off a bad loss of their own to a one-win Buffalo team in which they had eight drops, seven penalties, three interceptions and four fumbles in a blowout. Generally, no matter how talented you are, you’re not winning many games that way. Head coach Jim McElwain said as much during press availability this week, noting that the team knew it had let an opportunity slip away.

That’ll make for an interesting contrast in Mt. Pleasant on Saturday afternoon.

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, October 14th, 2023 at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time
  • Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required.)
  • Location: Kramer/Deromedi Field at Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan
  • Gambling considerations: Central is a 12.5-point favorite, with an over/under of 43.5, per DraftKings.
  • All-time series: CMU is ahead in the all-time series by a margin of 18-10-1, with a two-game streak going back to 2019.
  • Last meeting: The Chips won on the road in a sloppy, mistake-filled game against the Zips by a final margin of 28-21 on Oct. 15, 2022.

Getting to know the Zips

NCAA Football: Akron at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

It cannot be overstated how much the Zips have been just plain unlucky this year. Outside of a miracle turnover to seal their Week 2 against FCS Morgan State, nothing has gone right for Akron.

The Zips let a 21-7 lead over Temple dissolve on the road in a loss to the Owls to start the season, then had a strong defensive performance squandered by missed opportunities on offense against Kentucky in Week 3. A trip to Indiana in Week 4 saw the Zips dominate over most of the contest but unable to convert when it really counted, missing a field goal in regulation to win and then dropping a two-point conversion in the fourth overtime to lose.

The tipping point for their season seems to have been two weeks back against Buffalo— the same team which also caught CMU’s goat last week. The Zips and Bulls went back-and-forth in a defensive struggle, but it was special teams once again coming into play, as Buffalo’s Devin Grant blocked an Akron field goal to force a second OT period to win the game.

That contest saw DJ Irons tear his ACL, and his athleticism is missed; third-stinger Tahj Bullard got his first start vs. NIU and looked solid— if unspectacular— in the effort, finishing 19-of-34 for 146 yards, two total touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) and an interception. (Bullard himself replaced Jeff Undercuffler Jr., who had been 28-of-41 for 286 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions in four relief appearances.)

The Zips are built to move the ball with deep shots and downhill runs, but to put it simply, the line has been deficient.

The Zips OL has been one of the worst units in the country, letting up 24 sacks and 39 tackles-for-loss through six weeks (a mind-boggling average of four sacks and 6.5 TFLs per game), and it has had repercussions. The Zips are one of the worst teams in third-down conversion, with a pathetic 28.6 percent rate. The passing offense, which finished 18th in the NCAA last season, sits at 107th as of Week 6 with only five passing scores between three QBs. The rushing attack does look improved from 2022, but it’s a long way form being a dependable unit, averaging just 3.3 yards per run and five total touchdowns.

Former five-star running back Lorenzo Lingard will be the primary rusher for the Zips, leading the team with 287 yards and a touchdown on 56 carries. Tahj Bullock has two rushing scores overall as well and will likely be part of the gameplan in that aspect. In the receiving game, look out for Jasiah Gathings, who has emerged from out of nowhere to lead the Zips with 23 receptions for 212 yards.

Defensively, there’s a bit more to like. Akron is 56th in the NCAA in total defense, giving up 356.8 total yards per game while also sitting pretty at 44th in the country in third-down stops, with opponents converting just 35.8 percent of the time. That’s pretty good considering how woeful the offense has been this season, but where they give away games is in scoring defense, sliding in at 96th in redzone defense (81 percent) and 95th in points per game (29.5).

The linebacker pair of Antavious Fish (35 takcles, two TFLs, one sack) and Bryan McCoy (54 tackles, four TFLs, one sack, three QB hits) has been one of the better run-stuffing units in the MAC, with EDGE rusher CJ Nunnally their most serious penetration threat with five sacks and eight tackles-for-loss. Tyson Durante is the team’s shutdown corner, while safety KJ Martin has been the team’s center-fielder with four pass break-ups and an interception.

Special teams have been simply woeful for the Zips. All three placekickers have combined for a 45.5 percent conversion rate, which is not ideal. Dante Jackson is the best of them currently (2-of-3), but only scored from inside 30 yards. His miss in regulation vs. Indiana lost him the job to Owen Wiley— who turned around and went 1-of-2 with a blocked kick in overtime to lose to Buffalo. Last season’s kicker, Noah Perez, is 2-of-5 and hasn’t logged an appearance since going 1-of-3 vs, Kentucky.

Dante Jackson also handles punting duties, averaging 37.5 yards per boot, with 10 punts landing inside the 20-yard line.

Getting to know the Chippewas

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Central Michigan at Buffalo Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Chippewas have been one of the MAC’s stranger teams, which is saying something considering how strange the MAC has been in 2023.

Despite holding a minus-six turnover margin (122nd in the NCAA), and rostering one of the worst offenses (342.2 total yards per game, 103rd) and defenses (437.2 yards allowed per game, 115th) in the NCAA, they’re somehow 3-3 coming into this matchup, with the next three contests being extremely winnable.

By statistics, this team should probably be a lot lower in the league standings, but they instead sit in a four-way tie for second in the MAC West at 1-1, and could jump with a good performance against Akron.

Head coach Jim McElwain was aware of how vital it is to beat Akron in his weekly press availability, especially coming off a loss last week. “They’re a bit snake-bitten,” McElwain opined, noting the Zips’ box score and tape suggests a team a lot closer to being competitive than it looks. “We can’t make this the week they break out.”

The first step to ensuring they win is to limit preventable mistakes.

Through non-conference play, CMU had been one of the cleanest teams in the country in terms of turnovers lost, tossing just three interceptions through four games. That changed in league play, giving up four interceptions and a fumble against EMU and Buffalo. The Chips also picked up 14 penalties in the two league games, falling back into tendencies they showed in their first two weeks of play.

Jase Bauer (79-of-134 for 879 yards, four touchdowns, four interceptions; 40 carries, 139 yards, six rushing scores) has been the man at quarterback over the last few weeks, taking the starter’s share of snaps. Bert Emanuel Jr., the season’s initial starter, has been in and out of the lineup due to illness and injury, now mostly sees package work. He has 286 yards, three passing touchdowns and three interceptions to go with 165 yards and two rushing scores in four games.

Their help in the skill positions will likely see a bit of a shuffle after a less-than-stellar impression last week, as McElwain noted they messed with depth charts during the game to try and find contributors with sure hands.

Marion Lukes (40 rush, 178 yards, one score; 17 catches, 174 yards) and Myles Bailey (75 trush, 332 yards, two scores; seven catches, 58 yards) have been the most steady contributors on the offense, splitting the running back duties while also placing in the Top 5 for receivers. Jesse Prewitt III has emerged as the number-one receiver thanks to his recent play, with 21 catches for 306 yards and three touchdowns. Tyson Davis and Chris Parker, two big-play threats, have two touchdown receptions each as well.

The Central defense, as stated, has been a bit of a sieve. They’ve been especially brutal in pass coverage, which was a bit unexpected considering Donte Kent’s return to the lineup. The Chips are 124th in passing yards allowed, with 9.02 yards per attempt and a simply incredible 14.40 yards per completion. This team is a do-or-die operation, giving up major plays to try to force interceptions. Such porous coverage fails a competent run defense, which ranks 69th in the NCAA with 139.5 yards per game allowed on the ground.

Pass rush has also been difficult to find, as the Chips are one of the worst teams at getting penetration, with 10 sacks (t-100th) and 29 tackles-for-loss (102nd) through six games.

The defense certainly did all they could considering the circumstances last week, picking up two sacks and five tackles-for-loss, while allowing just 355 yards and getting UB off the field on third downs (3-of-13.)

Linebacker Kyle Moretti is the defense’s cog; he has a team-leading 56 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks. Jacques Bristol is the major threat in the defensive interior, leading the team in both tackles-for-loss (5) and sacks (2.5) through six games. Donte Kent, a first-team all-MAC corner and Freshman All-American in past seasons, has racked up 41 tackles, two tackles-for-loss and three pass break-ups in 2023.

CMU’s special teams are decent enough for an FBS team, with Arkansas State transfer Tristan Mattson taking all four field goal attempts and going 3-of-4, with the only miss from 30-39 yard range. Tarleton State transfer Jake Walrath is one of the better punters in the MAC, averaging 43.58 yards per boot, with eight punts inside-the-20 and eight punts of over 50 yards.