MADISON – While he still hasn’t developed a winning culture at his fifth head coaching stop, Akron head coach Terry Bowden can’t deny that 2015 was a good step forward.
Just three years removed from a third straight 1-11 season, Bowden helped guide the Zips to wins in their final five games, an eight win season for the first time as a division 1 school and the program’s first bowl victory in just their second appearance.
“It gave us some adrenaline, some excitement going into the offseason,” Bowden said. “Our guys were able to be motivated come January.”
They should also be motivated come Saturday. Ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll for the first time since the end of 2011, No.10 Wisconsin opens its six-game home schedule with a nonconference matchup against Akron at 2:30 p.m.
The Zips (1-0) won’t generate the same buzz that No.5 LSU did for Wisconsin fans, but Bowden’s program won’t be lacking confidence coming off last year’s triumphs and opening the season with a 47-24 home victory over VMI last weekend.
“The longer you are in this business, any win is a good win,” Bowden said, who spent 10 years in the broadcast booth between jobs at Auburn and North Alabama and is now in his fifth year in Akron. “We sure are very, very pleased to come up with our win. When you put both seasons together, we’ve won six straight. That’s for our program and where we’ve come the last three or four years. It’s another plus.”
There’s no question for Bowden that the strength is an offense led by veteran quarterback Tommy Woodson, who was named the Mid-American Conference East Division player of the week after throwing for a career-high 407 yards and a school-record six touchdowns.
“He responded to a situation where a team said we’re going to put everything up there close to a run, and if you’re going to beat us you’re going to throw the football,” Bowden said. “It was a great job of taking what the defense gave him. That’s where Tommy has taken his game and has shown great leadership.”
Woodson has plenty of pieces around, too. Junior receiver Jerome Lane caught 10 passes for 196 yards and two scores, while JoJo Natson – a transfer from Utah State – had two of his four catches go for touchdowns and added a third on a fumble recovery. The Zips had five players with at least four catches.
Added to the mix is 230-pound senior tailback Warren Ball. A former backup at Ohio State (one of 34 transfers on the Zips roster), Ball had 110 rushing yards.
“It gives us a little more balance to have two receivers that are making big plays and a running back that’s giving us speed and power,” Bowden said.
After facing a more typical pro-style offense in week one, Wisconsin will have a different challenge this week with the Zips wanting to spread out teams, creating isolation plays and having a quarterback who is mobile.
“It’s going to be a different preparation, and that’s good,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “This team needs it. Each week is different.”
Defensively Akron rotated in a lot of players at numerous positions in the opener, looking to fill gaps that included replacing three linebackers, two defensive tackles and a cornerback. The result was the Keydets throwing for 300 yards with two 90+ yard scoring drives in the third quarter.
“I don’t know how you prepare your team to play against a Wisconsin team that is one of the best defenses in the country, one of the most powerful running attacks in the country,” Bowden said. “Physically they have the ability to line up and physically whip you. We’ve just got to go out there and get our players ready to go play as physical as we can, play our best football and go after them.”
Akron went 0-2 against power five conference schools a year ago, losing 41-3 at No.19 Oklahoma week one and at home to Pittsburgh, 24-7, in week two.
“We kind of know what they’re going to do; we just don’t know if we can stop them,” Bowden said. “We’re going to go prepare for that. Our players are excited about that … We’re going to go in there with the expectation to pull off the victory, and we’ve got to go there and play as hard as we can against a team that’s super coached and a super athletic football team.”