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Akron-Marshall lacks expected importance

The Associated Press

Akron’s lost season could almost – but not quite – be salvaged.

Friday, October 26, 2001

Akron’s lost season could almost – but not quite – be salvaged. Another marvelous Marshall season is at stake.

The two Mid-American Conference teams meet Saturday in Huntington, W.Va., with widely divergent hopes. A year ago when they met, the MAC’s East Division title was there for the taking. Not this time.

The beaten and beaten up Zips (2-5 overall, 2-2 East) are hoping – after three consecutive losses – to have a pleasant memory from what has been a nightmarish season.

”It’s not like I’m trying to spend all my time convincing our players we’re a better team than our record indicates,” Akron coach Lee Owens said. ”That does become a little concern of mine. You lose a couple of tough games and you start to wonder: Are we good enough to finish at the end and win a game we need to?”

Owens is reassured, however, by his players, who continue to play and practice hard. They lost 31-14 at West Division heavyweight Western Michigan – also losing leading rusher Brandon Payne who suffered a season-ending knee injury.

The Zips were close to bouncing back the next week and were just an inch or two or a second or two from making it happen. But then Miami’s Ben Roethlisberger completed a 70-yard pass on the final play to give the RedHawks a stirring 30-27 win.

A week ago, Akron was close once again but ended up losing at home to Bowling Green, 16-11.

”You know, we’re just a couple of plays away from being 4-0 in the East,” Owens said. ”It’s that close. If we were 4-0, we would be playing for a championship down there (at Marshall) this week. We’re not, but let’s go play like it’s a championship game. Let’s play championship football.”

Marshall (5-1, 2-0 East) is right where it usually is, near the top of the standings and prepared for a stretch run.

Quarterback Byron Leftwich is on fire. In last week’s 42-21 win over Central Michigan, he completed 30-of-44 passes for 471 yards and added 24 rushing yards for a school-record 495 yards of total offense.

The Thundering Herd are looking suspiciously as if they are hitting on every cylinder.

Coach Bob Pruett is taking steps to make sure that’s the case by preparing his team for the rigors ahead.

”Every week’s a championship game for us,” he said. ”We’re expecting a tough game every week. We barely got by that game with Akron last year up there.”

Marshall won at Akron last season, 31-28, paving the way for the Herd’s fourth consecutive MAC title.

With Miami (5-2, 3-0 East) still leading the division heading into Saturday’s game at home against Western (4-3, 1-1 West), the Herd can’t afford to stumble.

”We’ve got a tough row to hoe here,” Pruett said. ”Each game’s a championship game and we’ve got to learn to play like champions.”

Akron doesn’t appear to be a match, on paper or in person. Owens isn’t paying attention to the comparisons.

”Just because our chances of winning this thing aren’t very good right now – or aren’t there at all, we’re not even talking about that any longer – we still have a lot of pride,” he said. ”The players don’t want to finish this way. And they’re just determined to make sure we get a couple of wins before this is all over.”

In other games Saturday, Northern Illinois (3-4, 1-1 West) is at Central (2-4, 0-1 West), Kent State (3-4, 1-2 East) plays at Ohio (1-5, 0-2 East) and Buffalo (1-6, 0-4 East) is at Eastern Michigan (1-5, 0-2 West). Non-conference action finds Toledo (5-1, 2-1 West) hosting Navy (0-6) and Ball State (2-4, 2-0 West) at Connecticut (2-4).