RedHawks facing tough challenge against MAC’s stingiest defense

Gus Ragland #14 of the Miami RedHawks looks to pass the ball against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the first quarter of the game on September 15, 2018 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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Gus Ragland #14 of the Miami RedHawks looks to pass the ball against the Minnesota Golden Gophers during the first quarter of the game on September 15, 2018 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

A Miami football team that’s already been shut out in one game and limited to three points in another through five games this season faces perhaps its most imposing challenge on Saturday.

The RedHawks travel to Akron for a Mid-American Conference East Division game against a Zips team that leads the conference in scoring and rushing defense and ranks second in total defense. The Zips produced three defensive touchdowns in a 39-34 win at Northwestern.

»RELATED: Miami-Akron preview

“Really stingy defense,” fifth-year Miami coach Chuck Martin said about Akron on Monday during his weekly media session. “They have as good a front seven as anybody in the league.”

The Zips (2-1, 0-0), the defending MAC East champions, are coming off a bye week, which left them plenty of time to think about their 24-14 loss at Miami last season – one of their two 2017 conference setbacks. That game served as the coming out party of then-freshman quarterback Kato Nelson, who went 19-of-38 for 218 yards and a touchdown in his college debut. This season, Nelson is 45-of-82 for 662 yards and six touchdowns with just two interceptions, and he also is Akron’s second-leading rusher with 135 yards on 39 carries – just four fewer than running back Van Edwards.

“Their quarterback is a crazy dual threat,” Martin said. “Those cats can run.”

Miami goes into the game 1-4 overall but 1-1 in the MAC East, a half-game behind 4-1 and 1-0 Buffalo in the division. Akron is one of two MAC East teams still waiting to face a conference opponent.

“Playing Akron is always fun,” tight end Nate Becker said. “They have a really good defense. As an offense, we’ve got to know our stuff. It should be fun. It’s an opportunity for a good game.”

Martin’s major concern is holding the fort until Miami gets some starters back from injury.

“We’re 1-1 in the league,” Martin said. “We’re focused on Akron. They won the East last season. We know all of the league games are going to be tight. Our biggest concern is can we rack up a couple of wins while getting guys back from injury.”

Terry Bowden, Martin’s Akron counterpart, knows the Zips face a challenge from Miami.

“You’re in a battle every week (in the MAC),” Bowden said on Tuesday during his weekly media session. “Our kids know what this is. This is an Eastern Division team. This is a team that beat us pretty soundly last year, and it’s a team we’ve got to beat to reach our goals – and they have to beat us, but it is different.”

“The only thing the nonconference counts is toward that bowl game. It counts toward bowl eligibility and, by all means, that’s important. These kids want to compete for the Mid-American Conference Championship. You’ve got to take your games one at a time, and Eastern games are critical because they all count for one win in conference, but when you beat Eastern Division opponents, that’s a loss on their record.”

Miami is coming off a bitter 40-39 loss to Western Michigan that started with Maurice Thomas’s 99-yard return of the opening kickoff for a touchdown, the RedHawks’ first return of a kickoff for a touchdown since 1997 and the first of an opening kickoff since 1986.


SATURDAY’S GAME

Miami at Akron, 3:30 p.m., 980, 1450