Kent State travels to Akron with Wagon Wheel

Kent+State+celebrates+after+defeating+Akron+in+last+years+Wagon+Wheel+game+for+the+third+year+in+a+row+Thursday%2C+Nov.+1%2C+2012%2C+at+Dix+Stadium.+Photo+by+Hannah+Potes.

Kent State celebrates after defeating Akron in last year’s Wagon Wheel game for the third year in a row Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012, at Dix Stadium. Photo by Hannah Potes.

Nick Shook

For any member of Kent State athletics, Akron week is not just one of 52 weeks in a calendar year.

Stakes are higher. Traditions, both new and old, are introduced or renewed.

While the Flashes are excited to face their arch rivals at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at InfoCision Stadium in Akron, they need to first focus on their own issues. After two weeks of underwhelming performances, Kent State has spent this week’s practices focusing on sharpening the fundamentals of football. And with the Zips up next on the schedule, there is no better time than Saturday for the Flashes to put it all together on the field.

“In the last two weeks, we haven’t played good football,” coach Paul Haynes said. “It still comes down to blocking, running, catching, and if we do those things well, we’ll see where we end up.”

Kent State faces an Akron team that is struggling just as much, although according to the Zips’ recent standards, some could argue that this season is a sign that things are turning around for UA. Akron recorded its first win against a Division I Football Bowl Subdivision opponent in 29 games when it defeated Miami (OH) 24-17 on Oct. 19. The Zips (2-7, 1-4 MAC) have the same record as the Flashes, but they appear to be improving, at least in small increments.

The Zips fell short of colossal upsets twice this season, coming two yards shy of their biggest win in school history, which instead resulted in a 28-24 defeat at No. 21 Michigan. Akron fell to No. 17 Northern Illinois 27-20 in DeKalb, Ill., in a game that was close until the very end.

Akron is also fifth in the MAC in passing offense and fourth in rushing defense, which could pose a problem to the run-first Flashes.

Running back Dri Archer, who has been plagued by injuries in 2013, has scored in each of the Flashes’ last five games, and he’s one player Akron coach Terry Bowden has his eye on this week.

“Dri Archer, everybody’s impressed with him,” Bowden said on Monday. “You mostly just don’t want to see him touch the football anymore than he has to. You don’t want to kick it anywhere in the stadium to keep the ball from coming down in his hands.”

On the other sideline, the player to watch is Akron’s Jawon Chisholm, who also struggled to get going early in the season but currently leads the Zips with 609 yards rushing and seven touchdowns. Chisholm finally broke through the 100-yard mark last weekend in a 42-24 loss to Ball State, rushing for 166 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries.

“One of his gifts is that (Chisholm) doesn’t always want to read (zone blocking), he does his own thing and it confuses the defense and the offense, and he puts special numbers on the board,” Bowden said.

Kent State started a string of three straight victories against the Zips with a 28-17 win on Oct. 9, 2010. Bowden had senior wide receiver Jerrod Dillard tell his teammates about the last time the Zips owned the wheel.

“The message was he was here when it got taken away,” Bowden said. “He said almost the entire (Kent State) team got in a three-point stance to come to our sideline to take that wheel.”

Bowden, who hasn’t personally seen the Wagon Wheel in more than a glimpse, said winning the wheel “can make up for a lot of tough Saturdays.”

However, for Haynes, who has had the luxury earned by the 2012 squad to see the wheel each day in the Kent State locker room, getting his first win against Akron as a coach and keeping the wheel in Kent would be a satisfying moment during an otherwise difficult season.

“For this whole football team, it would feel great,” Haynes said. “It’s just not another game; it’s the game, and that’s how you approach it. That’s the beauty of college football and playing in rivalries and having a rivalry game like this because there’s so much on the line. Our guys understand that, we understand that and they understand it. They’re saying the same things we’re saying, but that’s the beauty of the game.”

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected].