By Darren Zaslau
In the third week of the 2018 season, the Northwestern Wildcats will host the Akron Zips on September 15th at Ryan Field.
Last year, Akron finished 7–7 overall, won the Mid-American Conference East Division and earned a berth to the Boca Raton Bowl. The Zips were defeated by Toledo in the MAC Championship Game, 45–28, before falling to Florida Atlantic in the Boca Raton Bowl, 50–3.
Head coach Terry Bowden enters his seventh season at the helm and will look to lead the Zips to their third bowl appearance in the past four seasons. In 2017, Northwestern defeated Bowling Green, 49–7, and will look to secure a win against another MAC opponent this year.
Akron Offense vs. Northwestern Defense
Akron returns its quarterback in the dynamic Kato Nelson. The sophomore is a true dual-threat quarterback who can make plays with his legs and arm. Nelson made five starts and played in 10 games last year, completing 70 of 140 passes for 989 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. The Hollywood, Florida, native also rushed 95 times for 198 yards and a touchdown.
However, the Zips will need to figure out receiving options for Nelson. Akron lost four of its five most-productive receivers last year to graduation but returns its leading receiver from 2017 in Kwadarrius Smith. The redshirt senior made 34 catches a year ago, pacing the Zips with 726 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Smith was recently named to the 2018 Biletnikoff Award Preseason Watch List.
Akron’s backfield will have a new look this year after the graduation of leading rusher Manny Morgan, who ran for a team-high 434 yards on 116 carries with four touchdowns. Van Edwards Jr. and Deltron Sands are the likely options to lead the rushing attack this season.
On the other side of the ball, this matchup will highlight Northwestern’s defensive line to pressure Nelson and eliminate Akron’s run game. Though the Wildcats lost Tyler Lancaster, Northwestern returns three of its core starters on the defensive line in Jordan Thompson, Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller. In 2017, the Wildcats had the fourth-best rush defense in the Big Ten, allowing 107.7 yards per game.
Northwestern Offense vs. Akron Defense
Replacing running back Justin Jackson will be no simple task for the Wildcats’ offense, but Northwestern returns many key contributors who will be heavily relied upon in 2018. It all starts under center with senior quarterback Clayton Thorson, who was recently named to the Maxwell Award Watch List. The Wildcats will need Thorson fully healthy this season after his ACL injury sustained in the 2017 Music City Bowl. Thorson ranks as the program’s all-time leader in wins with 27 and touchdown passes with 44.
In the Wildcats’ backfield, sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin will likely be called upon to fill the shoes of Jackson, Northwestern’s all-time leading rusher who ranks 10th in NCAA Division I FBS history with 5,440 total rushing yards. In 2017, Larkin burst onto the scene in his first college season, rushing 84 times for 503 yards – a robust 6.0 yards per carry – and five touchdowns. He was also named to the Doak Walker Award Watch List.
Northwestern returns numerous wide receivers that made key contributions to the offense last year. Flynn Nagel, Bennett Skowronek and Riley Lees will look to build upon their successes from 2017 and continue to be reliable receiving options for Thorson.
Akron’s defense is led by senior linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III, a 2018 preseason All-MAC First Team selection and preseason Bednarik Award Watch List honoree. In 2017, Gilbert paced the team in tackles with 141, recording five sacks and three interceptions. Senior defensive back Jordan George is another key player to Akron’s defense, who led the Zips with five interceptions a year ago. Last season, Akron’s defense gave up 442.9 yards per game, the second-most in the MAC.
While Northwestern shouldn’t look past the Zips, a matchup with Michigan looms in week 4. If the Wildcats can defeat Akron, it will help them build momentum before hosting the Wolverines at Ryan Field. Kickoff against the Zips is set for 6:30 p.m.