The path to a victory for the Akron football team in its third bowl appearance will likely be on defense.
The Zips ranked seventh in the conference in points allowed at 26.3 points per game, numbers undoubtedly skewed upward by two games against Toledo. The Rockets scored 93 points in two wins over the Zips. But in red zone defense, the Zips ranked fourth in the MAC, allowing scores 74 percent of the time.
Where they truly excel is in turnover differential, where they finished first in the conference with plus-10 for the season.
Defensive coordinator and associate head coach Chuck Amato said his unit will need all they can muster as they prepare to take on Florida Atlantic in the Boca Raton Bowl at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday on ESPN.
Getting ready to head to practice pic.twitter.com/mJ0GAAxzO0— Akron Zips Football (@ZipsFB) December 16, 2017
"They've got huge big plays," Amato said. "They are sixth in the country in rushing offense. They are 10th [actually 9th] in the country in scoring offense."
'Just stop him'
Akron linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III, a first-team All-MAC selection, understands the key to beating the Owls is to stop them before they get a full head of steam.
That begins with stopping the leader of that running game, Devin Singletary, who's rushed for 1,796 yards and 29 touchdowns on 275 carries for an average of 6.5 yards per carry. Singletary has also shown the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, snaring 18 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown.
"He's very patient in the backfield," Gilbert said, "so what we have to do is get to our gaps, show gap control and just stop him before he gets rolling."
Tomorrow will be special. pic.twitter.com/RkSjK2Blo0— FAU Football (@FAU_Football) December 18, 2017
Defensive end Jamal Davis, a third-team MAC selection, said the Zips have to be wary of the Owls' read option offense in general. Easier said than done. The Owls ran up more than 600 yards of total offense in the Conference USA championship game, which they won.
The Owls could run up those kind of numbers on Akron. It's been done to the Zips before. But Amato has seen some growth in the defensive unit since the start of the season.
"It's a very good defense," he said. "There's a lot of things we started out slow, but we played some excellent teams."
The unit has been labeled as a bend-but-don't-break defense by some observers. It's also not the type of defense that Amato is known for or likes to play. Those who have seen his prior UA defenses are used to players who run to the ball with speed and tackle with confidence.
Turnovers to points
If the Zips can't stop the Owls from rolling up yardage, they know what it's going to come down to. Can they get turnovers and turn those turnovers into points? They produced five against the Rockets in the MAC Championship Game, a number normally good enough to get winning results. Amato thought they should have had more.
The other option is quite simple. Limit the big plays and keep FAU out of the end zone.
"I know we're not supposed to let them rush or pass like that," Davis said, "but at the end of the day, they don't score, it's better on the defense."
Gilbert, who will be playing the bowl game about three hours from his Ocala, Fla., home, agreed.
"Yeah, it sucks to give up the yardage for them to even get to that point," he said. "We always want to try and stop them from getting to that point. If they get to that point, we got to bunker down. We can't just let them into the end zone freely."
Although the Owls put up those freakish offensive numbers, the Zips aren't prepared to concede anything.
"Everyone said, we're a bend-not-break team," Amato said. "That's probably as good as you can put it. They can have the yards they want [but] we've stopped them."
This article is written by George M. Thomas from The Akron Beacon Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.