Does college football have too many bowl games? Try telling that to the Akron Zips.
Relying on its stout defense, Akron paid no mind to the frosty temperatures and the mostly-empty Albertsons Stadium.
Jubilation spread across the sideline as the Zips finished off a 23-21 win over Utah State on Tuesday in front of an announced crowd of 18,876 at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the school’s first FBS bowl victory.
“After we won, after I’d seen the final play, I cried, honestly, cried the whole time. I really did, just cried tears of joy,” Akron quarterback Thomas Woodson said.
Akron (8-5) finished the season with five straight wins, while Utah State (6-7) won two of its last seven following its 52-26 win over Boise State on Oct. 16.
The 2015 season marks the most wins for Akron since it moved to Division I in 1987, and also the first since 1997 for coach Terry Bowden, hired exactly four years ago Tuesday.
“When you’re a Bowden, Jr., there’s not many records left for you to go after,” said Bowden, son of legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. “... But I know one thing: Forevermore we’re the first team in I-A history at Akron to have won eight games. He ain’t got that record.”
Added Bowden, whose coaching career began as a Florida State graduate assistant in 1982: “This season is as meaningful to me as any I’ve ever had.”
The Zips’ defense kept the Aggies at arm’s length most of the game, trailing for only 6:58 during the third quarter. Utah State was held to minus-12 rushing yards in the first quarter and 18 in the fourth quarter. Three Aggie turnovers were converted into 10 Zips points.
With Utah State leading 14-13 and the ball in the Aggies’ hands, they couldn’t convert a chance to extend their lead when receiver Andrew Rodriguez lost a fumble at the Aggies’ 40-yard line. Eight plays later, Donnell Alexander scored on a 2-yard touchdown run.
“They didn’t give us anything,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “I can say that we gave them things, but really they created it.”
An earlier turnover took more momentum away from the Aggies.
Driving inside the Akron 30 with less than 30 seconds before the half and trailing 10-7, Utah State quarterback Kent Myers was sacked by linebacker Jatavis Brown, the MAC defensive MVP, and fumbled into the waiting arms of 305-pound defensive tackle Rodney Coe. A running back in junior college — seriously — Coe rumbled 56 yards to the Aggies’ 12, resulting in a 29-yard Robert Stein field goal that made it 13-7 as the first half ended.
“Oh man, it was amazing to see Rodney finally to get what he’s been asking for all season, a chance to run the ball,” Brown said. “ Before the play, we talked about it. I was going to go outside; he was going to go inside. That’s him sacrificing for me so I can make the play, and it ended up working out for him.”
Throughout Tuesday’s game, the Zips bent, but didn’t break.
Eight Aggie drives ended in Akron territory: one resulting in a punt, another with a botched hold on a field goal attempt, a failed fourth down, an interception, a fumble and the three touchdowns. Utah State running back Devante Mays ran for 124 yards, the most allowed to a single rusher by Akron this season, but Utah State could rarely convert despite holding a 363-282 edge in yardage.
“I just think it didn’t have an effect on our players, but the bottom line is the scoreboard could have been lit up a lot more, should have been,” Wells said.
Akron was able to start salting the game away with a 14-play, 56-yard drive that ate up 6:38 of the clock, capped off by a 46-yard field goal by Stein, the third for the game’s MVP, with 8:15 remaining that made it a two-score game at 23-14. Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Swindall with 1:12 left, but Akron recovered the onside kick.
The Zips’ nine seasons without a bowl berth was the third-longest active drought among continuous Division I teams. Now, as Bowden said, his team has a bowl win; they didn’t just come to show up.
“There’s not many people that were on the top (of the MAC) that are now on the bottom, but there’s one team that was on the bottom that’s now on the top, and that’s Akron,” Bowden said.