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2021 Mid-American Conference Football Week 3 Game Preview: Western Michigan Broncos at Pittsburgh Panthers

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The Broncos travel to Pittsburgh for their second P5 matchup of the non-conference season.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

GAME NOTES

  • Time and Date: 12:00 PM, Saturday, September 18, 2021
  • Network: ESPN3
  • Location: Heinz Field – Pittsburgh, PA
  • Spread/Total: Pitt -15, O/U 60.5
  • All-time series: First ever meeting

Western Michigan opened their home portion of the schedule last week by welcoming FCS foe Illinois State to Kalamazoo, and the team was hungry to bounce back after a disappointing performance against Michigan in Week 1.

Bounce back they did.

The Broncos defense was dominant in their 28-0 win over the Redbirds, limiting the Redbirds offense to 57 yards for the game, corralling dual threat QB Bryce Jefferson and completely shutting down anything ISU wanted to do offensively. Jefferson finished 8-of-19 for 29 yards and an interception, and the Redbirds ground game finished with 28 yards on 26 carries.

The 57 yards allowed tied a program record for the fewest yards allowed in a game, and the Broncos defense never allowed any shadow of a doubt in this one. The feat was especially impressive considering the Redbirds are a perennial FCS Playoff contender who finished 2019 ranked seventh in the country.

After earning their first win of the season, Tim Lester’s squad hits the road again to take on the Pitt Panthers of the ACC. This is the first-ever meeting between the two programs and represents a great opportunity for the Broncos. Western Michigan has not beaten a Power Five opponent since the 2016 season, when they knocked off both Northwestern and Illinois en route to the Cotton Bowl. The Broncos will certainly enter this game full of confidence and eager to show that their performance vs. Michigan was an aberration, rather than the standard.


Getting to know the Panthers

Pitt has been an interesting team to follow for a number of years now. Since Pat Narduzzi took over the Panthers program for the 2015 season, Pitt has gone 44-34 overall, and 29-21 in the ACC. Solid numbers, if unspectacular. The biggest characteristic of the Panthers under Narduzzi has been their inconsistency. The Panthers are always liable to pull an upset – see their victory at third ranked Clemson in 2016, or their win over a top fifteen UCF squad in 2019. The flip side of that coin, however, is that Pitt also always seems prone to being upset themselves – see last seasons inexplicable home loss to NC State, where the Panthers were a 14-point favorite but gave the game away in the fourth quarter. I say all of this to say, the Panthers can be had.

While the Panthers have typically been known for their stout defense under Narduzzi, it seems that the offense is driving the bus so far in 2021. The Panthers currently rank 24th in the country, averaging 497.5 yards of offense per game. Even more impressive has been the passing attack, led by veteran QB Kenny Pickett. The Panthers currently rank 15th in the nation in passing yards per game, and Pickett has been fantastic: 51-of-73 (69.9% completion), 557 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions.

To be fair, it’s tough to give the Panthers too much credit for a 51-7 throttling of UMass in Week 1. With that said, Pickett showed his ability to a national audience in the Panthers win at Tennessee this past Saturday, going 24-of-36 for 285 yards and two touchdowns. Pickett is the straw that stirs the drink for this offense, and it will be imperative for the Broncos front seven to get pressure and make him uncomfortable in the pocket.

Further bolstering the passing game is a deep stable of receivers: Taysir Mack, Jared Wayne and Jordan Addison lead the way, and all have over 100 yards receiving through the first two games of the season. Lucas Krull at TE provides another threat in the passing game, and leads the team with two touchdown catches on the year.

The run game has been a bit more of a struggle this year for the Panthers. Pitt currently sits at 72nd in the country, averaging 159.5 rushing yards per game and only 3.7 yards per carry. Those numbers are significantly bolstered by the rushing output against UMass, where the Panthers rushed 41 times for 223 yards, good for 5.4 yards per carry. Against Tennessee, the ground game was stymied, as Pitt could only manage 96 yards on 45 carries. Part of the issue is that the Panthers have failed to find a lead running back, as Vincent Davis and Israel Abanikanda have split carries through the first two weeks. Expect to see both against the Broncos on Saturday.

Defensively, the Panthers are always tough. Although they gave up 34 points to Tennessee in week two, that point total is a bit misleading. The Panthers first punt of the game was blocked and recovered by the Volunteers at the Pitt two yard line. Pitt held Josh Heupel’s high powered offense to 374 total yards, and was especially effective stopping the run. The Volunteers could only manage 136 yards on 33 carries. It bares mentioning that that total includes a 54 yard run by Joe Milton III; take that out and the Volunteers could only produce 82 yards on their other 32 carries (good for just 2.5 yards per rush).

This defense is led by a great front seven. The linebacking room is deep and talented, led by sophomore OLB SirVocea Davis and ILB John Petrishen. Calijah Kancey and Deslin Alexandre Jr. lead a young but talented defensive line. The philosophy here is simple: get pressure on the QB so that you’re defensive backs don’t have to cover for extended periods of time. This front seven will provide a stout test for the veteran offensive line of Western Michigan, and how they handle the pressure from this unit could go a long way towards determining the outcome in this one.


How do the Broncos match up?

Looking purely at the numbers through two weeks, it would seem that Pitt has a significant advantage in this game. In every significant statistical category, the Panthers hold an edge. You have to consider the context though – as I mentioned earlier, the Panthers numbers are bolstered by that season opening victory over UMass, who very well may be one of the two or three worst teams in the FBS. Last week, the Tennessee offense had some success, and some of what they did could be used as a blueprint to victory.

Against the Volunteers, the Panthers secondary allowed Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton III to combine for 66 percent completion and 238 yards. A quick passing game can be an efficient way to defeat a defense that is predicated on bringing pressure, and we all know that Kaleb Eleby is capable of getting rid of the ball quickly. If the offensive line can give him time to throw, I do think the Broncos high powered passing attack can get going.

In the run game, it will be more of a struggle. This Pitt defense may not be quite on the level of the Michigan unit that the Broncos faced in Week 1, but they’re not too far off. The Broncos only averaged 3.9 yards per carry against the Wolverines, and they will have to be better on the ground if they want to have a chance in this one. A balanced offensive attack will go a long way towards keeping this one close, and it will also be important to establish the run to keep the high powered Pitt offense off of the field. If the Broncos can do that and control the clock, they’ll have a chance in this one.

Defensively, the Broncos secondary will have their work cut out for them. As I mentioned earlier, this defense turned in a dominant performance last week against Illinois State, holding the Redbirds to 57 total yards of offense. The sledding will be a bit tougher this week. Kenny Pickett is a veteran QB who has seemingly been starting under center for a decade for the Panthers.

This Broncos secondary has been prone to the big play, allowing three touchdowns of over 60 yards against Michigan in Week 1. That is something that must be cleaned up if Western wants to have a chance in this one. The Panthers, I’m sure, will also look to establish the run game in this one after not having much success last week.

Ralph Holley and Ali Fayad on the defensive line will need to apply pressure up the middle and hope that the linebackers can fill the gaps to keep this run game in check. If the defensive line can apply pressure by themselves and allow the linebackers to stay in coverage, the Broncos may be able to slow the Panthers passing attack down. If both of these things can happen (I know those are some big “if’s”) the Broncos can hang around in this one.


Prediction

As I’ve said before in other game previews, this game feels like it will be determined by the match up in the trenches. If the veteran Western Michigan offensive line can keep Kaleb Eleby upright in the pocket, this offense has the talent to get going. If the Broncos defensive line can apply pressure on Kenny Pickett and corral the Panthers run game, they will keep WMU in this game.

Pitt is such a wild card, and you never know what you’re going to get from week to week. This offense has shows some great flashes in their first two games, and Kenny Pickett has this passing attack rolling. The talent gap here is not as wide as it was when the Broncos visited Ann Arbor in week one, but it still exists. I expect a much better performance by the Broncos this time around, but I do still think that the talent of the Panthers will prevail.

Pitt 38, Western Michigan 27