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2023 Week 11 Midweek MACtion Preview: Akron Zips @ Miami (OH) RedHawks

Miami (OH) turns to backup QB Aveon Smith to continue to the quest for a MAC title. In the way is an Akron team fresh off its best win.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Miami (Ohio) at Miami (FL) Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game notes

  • Time and date: Wednesday, November 8 at 7:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPNU
  • Location: Yager Stadium — Oxford, OH
  • Spread: Miami (OH) (-16.5)
  • Over/under: 43.5
  • All-time series: Miami (OH) leads, 22-9-1
  • Last meeting: Miami (OH) 27, Akron 9 — October 29, 2022
  • Current streak: Miami (OH), 6 (2017-22)

Setting the scene

The Miami RedHawks are masters at overcoming adversity. Right after losing their longtime leader and starting quarterback Brett Gabbert to a season-ending injury in a close loss to Toledo, the team could have easily folded. Instead, they responded with their strongest performance of the year, taking out Ohio 30-16 to gain control of the MAC East. After facing the MAC’s top teams in consecutive weeks, all that separates Miami from its first MAC Championship Game appearance since 2019 is 2-7 Akron, 3-6 Buffalo, and 2-7 Ball State.

The Akron Zips are the first of the challengers attempting to derail the RedHawks’ title hopes. Miami has got the best of Akron for six consecutive years now, and five of those games were decided by multiple scores. But for the first time this year, Akron has palpable momentum. The Zips are similarly down their starting quarterback, but they rallied from a 27-10 fourth quarter deficit last Wednesday night to knock off Kent State in the final seconds. Akron hopes the firepower demonstrated in that inspiring fourth quarter can translate to another gridiron across the state in Oxford, OH.


Akron Zips outlook

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 08 Eastern Michigan at Akron
Akron QB Jeff Undercuffler Jr. posted a season-high 298 passing yards against Kent State and accounted for 3 TD, including the game-winner.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Akron (2-7, 1-4 MAC) finally secured its first FBS victory of the year. The Zips appeared destined for a seventh consecutive loss at the launch of the fourth quarter, but both sides of the ball executed perfectly in the final stanza to secure the coveted Wagon Wheel.

The hero of the rivalry game, forever submitting his name into Wagon Wheel lore was Jeff Undercuffler Jr. For much of the season, Undercuffler served as the third-string quarterback, but an unfortunate midseason ACL tear to longtime starter DJ Irons muddled Akron’s security at the position. The Zips started Tahj Bullock in the two contests following Irons’ injury, but they eventually settled on Undercuffler — a former star at Albany who led the FCS in passing touchdowns in 2019.

Undercuffler set a season-high 298 passing yards in the comeback versus Kent State, delivering two touchdown strikes without an interception, and rushing in the game-winning score on an option play. The always-confident quarterback looks increasingly comfortable in Joe Moorhead’s offense with each passing week, and Akron is fresh off a season-high 31 points thanks to his Wednesday night performance.

The Wagon Wheel game was the first time Akron totaled four offensive touchdowns in a season. It was a masterful aerial performance by Undercuffler, working in wide receivers Daniel George and Jasaiah Gathings — who both enjoyed 9-catch, 100+ yard outings in the rivalry. It’s clear Akron possesses substantial wide receiver depth. In addition to those two, who rank first and second on the team in receptions and yards, the Zips also offer deep threat Alex Adams. Adams was a First Team All-MAC selection last year, and although his utilization has dwindled in 2023, he remains a speedy weapon capable of burning defenders from the slot.

One other Akron skill position player renowned for turning on the burners is Lorenzo Lingard, who totaled his second 100-yard game of the season against Kent State. He is the leading rusher in a ground game which ranks 126th nationally with just 91.6 yards per game, but remains a capable playmaker. Lingard is frequented in Akron’s pass-heavy offense, capturing 24 balls for 279 yards this year — surprisingly averaging more yards per catch than anyone else on the team.

Although the Zips are fresh off a stellar outing, the unit has been far from a juggernaut for most of the year. Akron is fifth-to-last in points per game and sixth-to-last in yards per game. Trench warfare has been a contributing issue to those statistics — as Akron’s line yields 3.7 sacks per game and the run game only averages 3.1 per carry.

But the Zips’ defense, although inconsistent, has shown more flashes of potential throughout 2023. It may come as a surprise with the 2-7 record, but Akron is 41st nationally in total defense. The unit can best be described as middle-of-the-road when it comes to stopping the run, but the pass defense has been a thing of beauty. Akron yields under 200 passing yards per game and holds opponents to a completion rate of 54.7 — good for seventh nationally.

Given Miami’s current offensive personnel, the RedHawks will prefer to run the ball. That carves out massive roles for linebackers Bryan McCoy and Antavious Fish, who must also serve as spies throughout the game to limit Aveon Smith’s mobility from the quarterback position. McCoy has three games with at least 12 tackles this season, while Fish is fresh out of the water with his second 10+ tackle performance in a three-game span.

Another standout to watch on defense include defensive end CJ Nunnally, who provided the game-sealing sack last Wednesday and ranks first on the Zips with 6.0 sacks and 12.0 tackles for loss in 2023. Generating pressure is something Akron does moderately well on defense, which explains the low completion percentage of opposing quarterbacks when pitted against the Zips.


Miami (OH) RedHawks outlook

Miami Ohio Redhawks v Miami Hurricanes
Michael Dowell (21) and Matt Salopek (15) are among the key defenders for the RedHawks, which rank 23rd in the FBS in scoring defense.
Photo by Eston Parker/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Miami (OH) (7-2, 4-1 MAC) is now the frontrunner to represent the MAC East in Detroit for the conference championship. The odds seemed stacked against the RedHawks when losing Brett Gabbert in the 21-17 loss to Toledo, especially with a potent Ohio team on the docket. But Chuck Martin’s squad rebounded with their biggest statement of 2023, knocking off the Bobcats in 30-16 fashion and gaining a key tiebreaker in the process.

Losing a fifth-year starting quarterback who has a MAC championship, a bowl victory, and all-conference honors is never easy, but Miami is as well-equipped as anyone in the MAC to handle that situation. Backup Aveon Smith started nine contests last year and won five of them, accumulating valuable experience along the way. Smith is quite the foil to Gabbert, as he racks up significant yardage with his mobility but doesn’t provide the same explosiveness in the passing game. Due to this, the offensive MO shifts when Smith replaces Gabbert in the lineup, but sophomore from Lexington, SC might have more freedom to throw this year as Martin cited his improved passing.

Against Ohio, Smith only tossed 11 passes but completed seven for 103 yards and a touchdown. Last year, he attempted more than 27 passes in just one of his nine starts and only crossed 200 passing yards twice, but he kept Miami’s offensive afloat with shifty capabilities as a runner. He surpassed the century mark twice as a runner in 2022, most notably totaling 142 rushing yards and two touchdowns against Buffalo. That new dimension of the offense should factor in Wednesday, as Miami inevitably leans heavier on the run game.

The workhorse running back supporting Smith is South Carolina transfer Rashad Amos. Against Ohio, Amos did more than enough to lead the RedHawks to victory, resetting his career-high with 163 yards on 21 attempts. It was only the second time this year Miami handed its leading rusher the ball at least 20 times, and on both occasions, Amos turned those opportunities into over 110 yards. The 6’2”, 234 pound back doesn’t go down easily at initial contact, so Akron’s defense might need to add extra effort in bringing down the leader of the RedHawks’ 71st ranked rushing attack.

When Smith does target the air, one of the preferred targets will be Gage Larvadain. The FCS transfer receiver started the year strong as the FBS’s leader in receiving yards after 432 in the first three weeks. While that insane production level hasn’t sustained, Larvadain doubles as a viable deep threat and reliable possession receiver along the sidelines.

One reason why Miami performed so well while Smith got acclimated last year was the presence of a relentless defense. That defense remains lethal in 2023 and consistently came up clutch against Ohio. They forced Ohio to a 3-of-14 showing on third downs, won the turnover battle, and limited the Bobcats to 50 rushing yards on a 1.9 average.

Miami’s run defense is its signature, allowing 126 yards per game for a 41st national ranking. The stalwart guiding this facet of the defense is multi-time All-MAC linebacker Matt Salopek who is simply a tackling machine. His 51 solo tackles and 93 total tackles are both top 10 in the FBS, and the former safety also provides backfield presence with 5.5 tackles for loss on the year. Speaking of backfield invasion, defensive end Brian Ugwu is on a tear right now with four sacks in the last four Miami games, and the battle between Akron’s o-line and Miami’s defensive front heavily favors the RedHawks.

Akron is going to target its wide receivers on the regular, and that’s where cornerback Raion Strader steps in. The breakout true freshman is third in the country with 11 pass breakups and often wins his one-on-one matchups on the boundary. Another playmaker in Miami’s secondary is nickelback Michael Dowell, who features 40 tackles and two picks on the year.


Prediction

While Akron showed substantial offensive progress in the Wagon Wheel win, replicating that on the road against a formidable Miami (OH) defense is far from a simple task. The RedHawks haven’t allowed more than 21 points in a single conference game, surrendering 12.2 points per MAC matchup. They held Kent State and Bowling Green out of the end zone completely, bolstered by a strong run defense and high win rates against those offensive lines.

The formula exists for something similar to occur Wednesday night in Oxford, OH. Miami’s defense should be the most superior unit in this game, making it difficult for Akron to accumulate multiple touchdowns. The RedHawks’ offense may not show explosiveness, but they’ll control clock with a heavy reliance on Rashad Amos and remain on track to punch a MAC Championship Game ticket.

This one shouldn’t be far off from last year’s score of 27-9.

Prediction: Miami (OH) 23, Akron 10