EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) - Entering the game, Terry Bowden was confident his players believed they could win.
That belief never wavered despite a near-disastrous first half.
Kato Nelson tossed two touchdown passes, Alvin Davis returned two interceptions for touchdowns, and Akron rallied from an 18-point deficit for a 39-34 victory over Northwestern on Saturday night.
Nelson was 17 for 28 for 277 yards and added 37 yards rushing. Kwadarrius Smith had six receptions for 90 yards and Andrew Williams had 85 yards on three catches for Akron (2-0).
“I just want to say that I’m proud of our team; not just that we won, but the way we won,” Zips coach Terry Bowden said. “Obviously, when you come into a Big Ten team like Northwestern and you’re a three-touchdown underdog, everyone doubts. The first thing is to get your kids to believe they can win, and they did.
“And then they go down 21-3 at half, and you want to tell your kids continue to believe, and they did.”
Clayton Thorson completed 33 of 52 passes for a career-high 383 yards with three TDs for Northwestern (1-2), but threw two interceptions and lost a fumble on a strip-sack in the second half that resulted in Akron scores.
Jeremy Larkin added 82 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 22 carries for the Wildcats.
“We shot ourselves in the foot,” Thorson said. “I was responsible for three of their TDs. You can’t have that.
“I think everyone on our team played well enough to win and I didn’t.”
The win was Akron’s first over a Big Ten team since the program moved up to 1-A (FBS) in 1987. The last win over a Big Ten opponent was a 12-6 win over Ohio St. in 1894.
The Zips charged out of the locker room to score 23 points in the third quarter - including Davis’ 97-yard interception return for a TD - to pull within 28-26 entering the fourth.
“We always talk about hitting the nearest sideline when you catch an INT,” Davis said of his first interception. “I was already headed that way and I saw all my blockers in front of me and I knew they would lead me to the promise land.”
Ulysees Gilbert III’s recovery of Thorson’s fumble in the end zone gave the Zips a 32-28 lead, their first of the game. A two-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful.
Akron put the game away when Davis hauled in a tipped pass from Thorson and returned it 50 yards for a TD and a 39-28 lead.
“I want to tip my hat to coach Bowden and his staff,” NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He had his guys ready to play.
“We’ve been on that other side where things don’t seem to be going your way and then it snowballs the other way. That’s exactly what happened.”
With a 21-yard TD pass to Cameron Green with seven seconds left in the first half, Thorson became NU’s all-time leader in TD passes with 45. He had been tied with Brett Basanez (2002-05) and Len Williams (1990-93).
Akron: The Zips rallied for the win despite a slew of mistakes - a poor snap on a punt and 15 penalties - to set up NU scores. But three defensive scores in the second half will make up for a lot of mistakes. “We made enough mistakes in the first half not to win the game,” Bowden said, “but we came through.”
Northwestern: The Wildcats have dropped two straight following a nine-game winning streak and looked awful in both, especially in the second half on Saturday. The offense remains inconsistent and the defense struggled in the second half. They have an open date next week to work out the kinks before a big test against Michigan.
Akron: Visits Iowa State on Sept. 22.
Northwestern: Hosts Michigan on Sept. 29.
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