Akron's defense scored three touchdowns in the second half -- including a pair of long pick-sixes by junior free safety Alvin Davis -- to spark a 39-34 non-conference victory over Northwestern on Saturday night at Ryan Field.
The Zips (2-0) earned their first win over a Big Ten foe in 124 years despite trailing 21-3 at halftime. Davis' 97-yard interception return pulled Akron within 2 points late in the third quarter, then the Zips posted two more defensive scores in a 64-second stretch of the fourth to take control for the first time.
Sophomore quarterback Kato Nelson completed 17 of 28 passes for 277 yards and 2 touchdowns as Akron knocked off a Big Ten school for the first time since 1894 -- when it was known as Buchtel College and John Heisman was the team's quarterback/coach for a win over Ohio State.
Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for 383 yards and 3 touchdowns for Northwestern (1-2) while becoming the school's all-time leader in touchdown passes, but he committed all three turnovers that turned into touchdowns.
Northwestern seemed to set the tone early after an Akron long snap eluded senior punter Nick Gasser. The Wildcats set up at the 7-yard line and sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin (22 carries, 82 yards) powered off right tackle for a touchdown on the next snap.
Larkin pushed the margin to 14-0 with 7:21 left in the second as he lined up in the Wildcat formation and swept around right end for 5 yards and his fifth score of the year.
Akron broke through with Gasser's 37-yard field goal with 39 seconds left, but head coach Pat Fitzgerald broke out of his typical mindset and wasn't content to go into the locker room with a 14-3 lead.
Thorson completed three quick passes to junior wideout Bennett Skowronek, then capped the quick-time march with a 21-yard strike to junior tight end Cameron Green (11 catches, 125 yards) on a seam route. That marked Thorson's 45th touchdown pass -- breaking a tie with Brett Basanez and Len Williams to claim the school's career record -- and gave the Wildcats a 21-3 lead at the break.
Gasser converted a 24-yard field goal to open the second half. The Zips then pulled within 21-13 on their next drive as Akron narrowly converted a fourth-and-2 with a reverse -- then Nelson hooked up with sophomore wideout Andre Williams for a 25-yard touchdown.
On the next possession, Northwestern tried to press its luck on fourth-and-3 but Thorson was flushed out of the pocket and threw on the run. Davis picked off the errant pass and raced down the left sideline for a 97-yard score. Nelson's 2-point conversion pass was too high, however, and Northwestern held on to a 21-19 edge with 3:14 left in the third.
Akron stopped Northwestern on its next possession, but senior middle linebacker Brian Bell body-slammed junior wideout Flynn Nagel on third down and didn't get away with it. Bell was flagged for unnecessary roughness and a dead-ball unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Those 30 yards moved the Wildcats into the red zone and Thorson connected with Green for a 13-yard score and a 28-19 lead - and Northwestern's first points after halftime this season.
Nelson answered again as he lobbed a 24-yard touchdown pass to freshman tight end Maverick Wolfley to make it 28-26 with 24 seconds to go in the third.
Akron took its first lead with 8:28 to go when junior linebacker Josh Ward knocked the ball loose while sacking Thorson at the 10. The ball bounded toward the goal line and senior linebacker Ulysses Gilbert III dove on the ball just before it went out of the back of the end zone. Akron's 2-point conversion failed, but the Zips held a 32-28 lead.
On NU's ensuing drive, Thorson tried to connect with Skowronek over the middle. The pass went off his hands to Davis, who grabbed the deflection at midfield and weaved his way through the Wildcats for 50 yards and his second score of the night.
Northwestern pulled within 39-34 with 2:21 to go as Thorson rolled out on fourth-and-10 and lobbed a pass toward the back of the end zone. Skowronek jumped with two Akron defenders and came down with the ball and his left foot just inside the line.
Akron recovered the onside kick, but Northwestern regained possession at the Zips' 30-yard line with two seconds left. Thorson lobbed a pass into a crowd at the goal line, but the ball was deflected off Skowronek's hands at the goal line and the ball fell incomplete.
--Field Level Media