AKRON — Stepping onto the field for the first time, Javon Hagan was surprised to see a familiar face on the other side of the ball.
At quarterback for the Zips was redshirt freshman Kato Nelson, who, like Hagan, grew up in Florida. Hagan was expecting someone else under center on the chilly Tuesday night, more than 800 miles from their home state.
“That’s what was the hard thing, we were just so focused on (quarterback Thomas Woodson), and he wasn’t even in the stadium tonight,” Hagan said after Ohio’s 37-34 loss. “That’s a big letdown on our part. If we would’ve focused on (Nelson), we would have been able to prepare better.”
Woodson, a senior, was the Zips’ starter for the first nine games of the season. He did not play in either of the past two games due to a violation of team rules, according to a report from the Akron Beacon-Journal.
In Woodson’s place, Akron tapped Nelson to make just his second collegiate start. With a conference title game berth at stake, Nelson thrashed Ohio for 322 passing yards and four touchdowns, as well as 45 yards rushing.
From the outset, there were no big-game jitters for Nelson.
Ohio (8-3, 5-2 Mid-American Conference) allowed him to settle in quickly, as he connected on each of his touchdown passes in the first half. Nelson had enough quickness to stay sack-free all game and hurt the Bobcats with deep, pinpoint passes on blown coverages.
“We were preparing for a much slower quarterback,” Hagan said. “(Woodson) is a much slower quarterback. (Nelson) is definitely the better quarterback, (Woodson) just had more experience. (Nelson) was definitely more talented and we didn’t prepare for him.”
The Bobcats, who entered the game allowing the third-most passing yards in the conference (252.5 per game), looked their least prepared on two 50-plus yard touchdown throws from Nelson to receiver Kwadarrius Smith.
On the first, Nelson found Smith uncovered as a wideout and Smith ran 71 yards untouched into the end zone. Later, Smith beat Jalen Fox on single coverage, catching a 54-yard strike several strides ahead of Fox on his way to the end zone.
Ohio coach Frank Solich said his players “knew everything we needed to know about Nelson” before kickoff on Tuesday. But Woodson was said to be a game-time decision, which may have thrown off the Bobcats.
Six days removed from keeping Toledo’s NFL-ready quarterback, senior Logan Woodside, in check for 263 yards and one touchdown, Ohio struggled against a much greener quarterback in the game that mattered most for its season.
“He threw the ball well,” Solich said of Nelson. “But it seems like a lot of people throw the ball well against us.”