EVANSTON, Ill. – For the first time in Akron football history, the Zips defeated a Big Ten opponent as Akron held on to a 39-34 victory over Northwestern on Saturday evening at Ryan Field.
Whatever Zips’ head coach Terry Bowden said to the team at halftime worked as the Akron offense nearly doubled its yardage output in the third quarter. The Zips only managed to gain 123 yards of total offense in the first half, but the next 30 minutes proved to be the game changer.
“Obviously when you’re coming to a Big Ten team like Northwestern, and you’re three touchdown underdogs, everyone doubts,” Bowden said. “The first thing is to get your kids to believe that they can win.”
Akron put up 213 yards of total offense alone in the third quarter, starting with the initial drive. The Zips opened the final 30 minutes with a nine-play, 68-yard drive that ended on the foot of senior P Nick Gasser (Liberty Township, Ohio). Senior WR Kwadarrius Smith (Orlando, Fla.) caught two passes during the run, worth 11 yards and 40 yards, from sophomore QB Kato Nelson (Hollywood, Fla.). Akron trailed 21-6 at that point, but not for long.
On Akron’s next possession, Nelson orchestrated a nine-play, 80-yard drive that ended with the Zips’ first touchdown of the game. Akron picked up 25 yards in back-to-back plays, 13 yards on the ground from Nelson and 12 yards in the air to Smith. Next, a defensive pass interference call gave Akron 15 more yards and setup a 25-yard touchdown pass from Nelson to sophomore WR Andre Williams (Orlando, Fla.). With 6:44 remaining in the quarter, Zips trailed 21-13.
The defense had a strong first half and continued to challenge Northwestern offense in the second half. In fact, Zips’ junior CB Alvin Davis, Jr. (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) let his presence be known when he picked-off an errant pass from NU QB Clayton Thorson. Alvin Davis returned the interception 97 yards for six points to put Akron within two points of Northwestern, 21-19.
Northwestern battled back with a touchdown, but that didn’t rattle the Zips as Akron immediately returned the favor. Northwestern traveled 74 yards in nine plays, taking 2:01 off the clock, but the Zips only needed two plays for 75 yards in 50-seconds to stay within two points. Akron trailed 28-26 at the end of the third quarter.
Northwestern opened the final 15 minutes with the ball and used nine plays to travel 42 yards, but missed wide left on a 43-yard field goal attempt to extend the lead. The Akron defense took over.
On the Wildcats ensuing possession, junior LB Josh Ward (Delray Beach, Fla.) sacked the quarterback and knocked the ball loose, while senior LB UlyseesGilbert III (Ocala, Fla.) dove on the ball in the end zone to give Akron the lead 32-28 with 8:23 remaining in the game.
The Zips added seven more points with a defensive takeaway as Alvin Davis recorded his second pick-six for the game. He intercepted the ball at the 50-yard line and finished with his second touchdown of the game to give Akron a 39-28 lead with 7:24 left to play.
Northwestern added a late touchdown to come within five points, 39-34, but the Wildcats did not get the ball back until two-seconds remained on the scoreboard.
For the game, Nelson completed 17-of-28 for 277 yards and two touchdowns and 37 yards on the ground. Smith led the receiving corps with six catches for 90 yards, while Williams three catches for 85 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt freshman Maverick Wolfley (Morgantown, W.Va.) registered his first career touchdown reception for 24 yards. On the ground, senior RB Van Edwards, Jr. (Cape Coral, Fla.) led with 53 yards.
Defensively Akron scored 21 points due to Alvin Davis’ pair of touchdowns and Gilbert’s fumble recovery. The Zips recorded two sacks, one by Ward and senior DL Brennan Williams (Akron, Ohio) and senior DL Brock Boxen (New Galilee, Pa.) were credited with the second sack. Junior LB John Lako(Monroe, Mich.) led the squad with 12 tackles, followed by senior LB Brian Bell (Valdosta, Ga.) with 11 tackles and a team-best five pass breakups.
Next, Akron visits Iowa State on Saturday, Sept. 22, at Noon ET (11 AM CT) on FSN.