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5 Questions with Hustle Belt: How bad is Akron, exactly?

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK

Following a 35-13 victory over the Western Michigan Broncos, the Michigan State Spartans come into Saturday’s contest against the Akron Zips with a 1-0 record. MSU is currently No. 11 in the Coaches Poll and No. 14 in the Associated Press Poll.

Akron, on the other hand, barely survived its season opener against an FCS opponent, Saint Francis (Pennsylvania), but ultimately won 30-23 in overtime.

In an effort to get a clearer picture on Akron, we once again connected with Hustle Belt — SB Nation’s fantastic website for all Mid-American Conference (MAC) news, opinions and analysis — but this time, we spoke with deputy editor James Jimenez.

Are the Zips really that bad? What players could make an impact for Akron? Is new head coach Joe Moorhead the right guy to turn the program around? James gives us the lowdown.

1. OK, so the Zips are coming off of a 2-10 campaign in 2021 and needed overtime to defeat FCS St. Francis last week. Is Akron the worst team in the MAC, in your opinion? Why or why not?

James: We have a policy at Hustle Belt to try our best to be optimistic with team projections, but sometimes, you just have to call a spade a spade, and in this case, Akron is a spade. Akron had won only three games since the 2019 season prior to that win against Saint Francis on Thursday night, with two of those wins coming against fellow MAC basement member Bowling Green. To frame it in a simpler fashion: SFU is one of just two non-Bowling Green teams the Zips have won a game against since 2019. The other team? Bryant University, of the America East Conference. It’s been pretty bad. Even just looking at other basement MAC teams in 2021, Bowling Green has pulled off a massive upset of Minnesota the same year the Falcons went 4-8, while Ohio was in the midst of a very painful and sudden coaching change en route to a 3-9 season. It makes Akron the worst MAC team by default — and by a country mile, to boot.

It’s a credit to the new coaching staff to start the season with a win, in that respect. Akron hadn’t accomplished that since 2018 versus Morgan State, two head coaches ago, so give them their flowers there. But it’s a deep, deep, deep hole they’re in right now, and change is going to have to come in increments, as opposed to leaps. Despite all outside appearances, this is not your typical copy/paste rebuild in Akron, that’s for sure.

2. Who are the players on Akron’s offense Michigan State fans should look out for?

James: A couple names stuck out offensively on Thursday night. Former Pittsburgh receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis (pronounced JOCK-lou-ee) was easily the most dynamic player on either side of the field, collecting eight passes for 100 yards and a touchdown, including a beautiful 47-yard reception where he back-shouldered the ball, then ran in open space past the Red Flash defense to give Akron the lead of the game at that point. Minnesota transfer Cam Wiley, who Big Ten fans might remember as the Golden Gophers’ second-leading rusher in the 2020 COVID season, also came up pretty big for Akron in his Zips debut, with 84 yards and two touchdowns — including the ultimate game-winner — on 24 carries.

3. Who are the difference-makers on Akron’s defense?

James: There’s a couple contributors on defense MSU fans should look for, both old and new. Linebacker Bubba Arslanian, a perpetual double-digit per-game tackler who is very disciplined in the run game, will be in the middle of the defense for the Zips, while cornerback Charles Amankwaa, Akron’s best playmaker in 2021, is an excellent cover corner who pulled down three interceptions and had nine pass break-ups in 2021.

Wyoming transfer Victor Jones showed a lot of promise in the game at the edge on Thursday, with eight tackles, and figures to be key in the game plan moving forward. Spartan fans may also recognize linebacker Jeslord Boateng (79 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks in 2021), who played five games for the Green and White in 2019 before sitting out in 2020. He was a starter for this defense last season, and should see snaps in the linebacker rotation once again this year.

4. It’s early on in the tenure, but do you believe head coach Joe Moorhead is the right person to lead the program? Why or why not?

James: There’s still a lot to learn about this team honestly, given that nearly half the roster is brand-spankin’ new due to transfers and the like. I don’t like to overreact so early on, as it does set up a certain kind of unfair expectation, but if there’s anyone who can do the job of fixing this team reliably, it’s Joe Moorhead. Moorhead is familiar with the Akron area, having previously been on staff during the Zips’ 2005 MAC title game, and is just as intimately familiar with the northwest Ohio/western Pennsylvania recruiting area in which Akron will need to tap into in order to be successful, thanks in part to his Northeastern roots.

He is also known as something of a fixer with good X’s and O’s, having been brought in to Penn State and Mississippi State to help keep a steady ship amid rocky waters. We’ll learn more about how he operates as the season progresses, but even just guiding Akron to a win, which was anything but certain last week, is a great start for a program which needs to learn how it feels to win again.

5. Following up on that a bit, what steps need to be taken for Moorhead and the Akron program to make progress and not finish in the basement of the MAC year-after-year? How far off is this team from competing in the conference?

James: Well, the step that’s easiest to control is their on-field performance. Akron took a great first step by not folding to an opponent when the pressure was on, something the Zips had a horrendous habit of doing under Tom Arth. They’re almost assured to lose to Michigan State, Tennessee and Liberty, but so long as they get out healthy and there is clear game-to-game development for the players on the roster, the Zips are in a great position to improve their basement-dwelling status. The MAC East is in a rebuild for what seems to be the 11th season in a row, so even if they come in to the conference season at 1-3, there’s still a great chance to sneak some wins in there and establish expectations for further down the line, even if they’re not an immediate contender in 2022.

This team probably has a three or four win potential as currently constructed, which if the Zips can reach that ceiling, would be like giving water to someone who’s been stranded in the desert. From there, turning the three-to-four-win window into a four-or-five-win one, and then making that window a five-to-six win one, etc., is the ultimate goal for long-term success.

Eastern Michigan gave Chris Creighton the same sort of leeway in Ypsilanti, and it worked out pretty well for them. The Akron leadership (and the ever-rowdy Zips faithful) will have to be as patient as they can be with Moorhead and his staff as he tries to bring this program back to respectability and not rush the process. Arth was a little overwhelmed by the job, and it showed in what he ultimately left behind; anyone taking over this roster will need time to settle in and rebuild the program’s confidence.

Bonus: Is there any possible way you see Akron winning this game against Michigan State? If so, how? What is your final score prediction?

James: I’m gonna be honest here: I would be shell-shocked if this Akron team kept pace with MSU. I watched most of the Western Michigan/Michigan State game on Friday night, and MSU pasted a Western team that is much, much more situated for staying in contention with Power Five teams than the Zips are.

Akron’s got some sneaky fun individual talents, but sometimes individual talents don’t win games (hello, Jordan Love against MSU back in 2018). The best way for Akron to get to being in a position to win would be the old-fashioned upset playbook: possess the ball as long as possible, maintain a positive turnover ratio, be efficient with your scoring and make sure the opponent scores as little as possible. Even with the perfect game plan, luck will still have to be involved in some fashion, and woo buddy, that’s a hard thing to depend upon.

I don’t like doing final score predictions on principle, but I will say Akron could stay within 35 points (the current spread via OddsShark) depending on game flow, especially if the starters get pulled early in this one. If the Zips can achieve that, it’s akin to a win development-wise.

A big thank you to James for providing everything we need to know about Akron. Follow James on Twitter, and for more insights on the Zips and the MAC as a whole, make sure to follow Hustle Belt as well.