For the past four years, there has been a sense that the Western Michigan Broncos haven’t been able to get over the hump.
Well, perhaps Saturday will serve as the day that the Broncos can shed that notion.
Coach Tim Lester got his signature win, and WMU march up and down Heinz Field on Saturday afternoon to knock off the Pitt Panthers by a final score of 44-41.
Sophomore QB Kaleb Eleby was fantastic, battling through an injury and a brutal on-field temperature to finish the day 23-of-35 for 336 yards and 3 TD’s. WR Skyy Moore, a Pittsburgh native, had a career day in his hometown, posting 11 catches for 124 yards and his first TD of the season.
The Broncos had a promising start to the game, going 49 yards in nine plays on their opening drive. After the drive stalled just outside the Pitt red zone, Parker Sampson missed a 43 yard field goal. It felt like a huge missed opportunity to set the tone, yet the Broncos offense looked confident on the drive.
After the teams traded punts on their next two possessions, the Broncos vulnerability to the big play once again showed up. On the first play of Pitt’s second drive of the game, Kenny Pickett found WR Jordan Addison on a deep post route for a 67-yard TD. It was the fourth score of 60+ yards that the Broncos defense has allowed this year, certainly a troubling trend.
Fortunately for Western’s defense, their offense was there to pick up the slack. Eleby and company went 75 yards in 10 plays on their ensuing drive, and Eleby’s 21-yard completion to Corey Crooms set up RB Sean Tyler’s one yard TD run on the next play.
The Broncos defense forced their first turnover of the day on the next drive, as Kenny Pickett fumbled after scrambling for 19 yards and a first down. Zaire Barnes recovered the fumble and gave Western possession on the Pitt 41-yard line.
The offense responded in kind, and Eleby found Jaylen Hall with a beautiful pass down the left sideline on the first play of the drive. This brought the Broncos within striking distance, and La’Darius Jefferson scored his first TD of the day with a one yard run on 4th and goal.
The Broncos defense rose up and stopped Pitt on fourth down on their ensuing drive, giving the offense the ball back at their own 40-yard line. Eleby went back to work, and on the sixth play of the drive found Skyy Moore over the middle for a 30-yard TD. Western missed the extra point, but still found themselves up 20-7 in the second quarter.
Pitt quickly responded, going 75 yards in eight plays. Pickett capped the drive with his second TD throw of the day, this time a two yard pass to TE Lucas Krull. The Panthers also missed their extra point, making the margin seven once again.
After a three-and-out from the Broncos offense, the Panthers marched 71 yards in just three plays to tie up the game. Pickett found Jordan Addison for a 23-yard score to cap off the drive, their second TD connection of the day.
In need of a response to curb Pitt’s momentum, the Broncos offense was only able to muster one first down and was forced to punt once again. This time, however, the defense bailed out the offense, as Kenny Pickett was sacked and fumbled on the first play of the ensuing drive. Zaire Barnes recorded his second fumble recovery of the afternoon, and all of a sudden WMU found themselves with a first and goal at the Pitt eight yard line.
Two plays later, Eleby found Sean Tyler out of the backfield for a five yard touchdown, and the Broncos were back in front 27-20.
The Western defense created their third turnover of the first half on the next drive, as Pickett was picked off and gave the Broncos the ball on the WMU 45-yard line.
Unfortunately the offense was unable to capitalize, and the Panthers equalized on the next possession, with Pickett finding Addison for their third scoring connection of the day to tie the ballgame at 27-27 for the halftime tally.
The second half got off to a slow start, as two Pitt three-and-outs were sandwiched around a stalled WMU drive. Both teams were trying to find their footing, and it felt as if the next team to strike would be in the drivers seat.
The Broncos did just that. On the second play of their next drive, Eleby found WR Corey Crooms on a deep post route. Crooms broke one tackle and had nothing in green in front of him after that, going 54 yards for the score. 34-27 Broncos.
Pitt quickly responded on their next drive, going 75 yards in seven plays. Picket capped this drive off with his second TD toss to Lucas Krull, to bring the score back to 34-34.
The Panthers kept coming at the Broncos, but the Broncos offense kept responding. Western’s next drive was perhaps their best of the day, going 75 yards in 12 plays and taking 5:50 off the clock. La’Darius Jefferson capped off the drive with his second TD run of the day, this one a three-yard run on second and goal. With 14:03 to go in the game, the Broncos found themselves with a 41-34 lead.
The WMU defense responded with their biggest stop of the day on the ensuing drive, as Ali Fayad sacked Pickett on fourth down to give the ball back to the Broncos offense. After draining 4:40 off the clock, Parker Sampson connected on a 29 yard field goal to give Western a 44-34 lead.
Pitt would not go down without a fight, and Pickett led the Panthers down the field for another efficient scoring drive. This time around, the Panthers went 75 yards in six plays, Pickett found Jaylon Barden for a 22-yard TD to make the score 44-41.
It proved to be too little too late, as the Broncos were able to pick up three first downs on their ensuing drive and drained the remaining 3:48 off the clock. The clock hit triple zero, and Western fans everywhere could exhale. The Broncos were able to fly the flag on the river banks of Pittsburgh.
Despite the result, Pitt QB Kenny Pickett was fantastic in this game. The sixth-year senior carved up the Broncos secondary all day, finishing 23-of-31 for 382 yards and six TD’s.
Luckily for the Broncos, Eleby was equally as fantastic, and Western won the yardage battle 516-490. There are still some things to be worked out in the run game, as the Broncos were only able to muster 160 yards on 48 carries (good for only 3.3 yards per rush).
On the other side of the ball, the Broncos pass defense has some serious issues to figure out. As mentioned previously, Pickett threw for 382 yards in this one, and big plays continue to plague the Western secondary. Pitt WR Jordan Addison had his way with the Broncos, finishing with six catches for 124 yards and three scores.
The Broncos run defense was actually quite stout in this one, holding the Panthers to 75 yards on 24 carries. This is certainly something that Pitt can build upon.
With all that said, this isn’t a moment to be critical. This was a fantastic victory for coach Lester and the entire Broncos program, and their first victory over a power five foe since that magical 2016 season. Western entered the year believing they were one of the best teams in the MAC, and this victory confirms it.
In big time college football, there is no time to rest on your laurels. The Broncos face another stiff test next week, as reigning Mountain West champion San Jose State visits Kalamazoo. Kickoff at Waldo Stadium is set for 2:00 EST.