Western Michigan got a signature win on Saturday afternoon, traveling into Heinz Field and leaving with a 44-41 upset over the Pitt Panthers. It was a big moment for the Broncos program and represented their first win over a Power Five opponent since 2016. It was, without question, one of the biggest wins of Tim Lester’s tenure in Kalamazoo.
This was a team with high expectations entering the season, in Saturday’s victory could go a long way towards proving that WMU is one of the best teams in the conference this year. What did we learn about the Broncos on Saturday, and what questions still remain? Let’s take a look.
Confirmed: This Offense is the Real Deal
Entering this season, the high expectations surrounding the Broncos mainly stemmed from the returning talent on offense. Losing D’Wayne Eskridge was a blow, but Kaleb Eleby and a veteran offensive line all returned, along with a ton of talent at the skill positions.
It was tough to learn too much about this unit throughout the first two weeks of the season. They certainly had their moments against Michigan in Week 1, but the Wolverines defense mostly stymied the Broncos attack. In Week 2, Western seemed to keep things close to the vest and let their defense dominate the game against Illinois State.
On Saturday, the high-powered potential of this offense was on full display. Eleby completed 23-of-35 passes for 337 yards and three TD’s. Lead backs La’Darius Jefferson and Sean Tyler combined for 36 carries, 165 yards (4.5 yards per attempt) and an additional three TD’s. Not only was this offense efficient, but it was balanced.
There were times on Saturday where it seemed that the Broncos offense could do whatever it wanted against this Pitt defense, and the numbers showed it. Western Michigan won the yardage battle and racked up over 500 yards of total offense in the process. It’s not very often that you can say that whenever a MAC team travels into a power five stadium, but the Broncos offense was the best unit on the field for most of the game.
In the receiving game, Skyy Moore and Corey Crooms both had career days. Moore, a Pittsburgh native, returned to his hometown and had the best game of his Broncos career, finishing with 11 catches for 124 yards and a TD. Crooms was not to be outdone, pulling in eight catches for 161 yards and a TD of his own. Throw in speedster Jaylen Hall, and you have one of the best receiving corps in the conference.
Who’s D’Wayne Eskridge again?
One minor drawback: Eleby did get sacked three times in this game, so there are some things to clean up for the offensive line. Pitt is a team that is notorious for bringing a lot of pressure, and surely they’ll have success getting to the quarterback against other offensive lines this season. Even with that said, three sacks in a game is not ideal, and certainly not up to the standard that this offensive line has set in the past. If they can get this cleaned up, this offense could be unstoppable in conference play.
Also Confirmed: This pass defense needs some serious work
The Western Michigan defense’s struggle at stopping the big play has been well documented. It hurt the Broncos last year, and it came up again in week one against Michigan, when the Wolverines scored three touchdown’s of over 60 yards. Unfortunately for WMU fans, this troubling trend continued on Saturday.
Pitt QB Kenny Pickett had what was perhaps the best game of his Pitt career, going 23-of-31 for 382 yards, six TD’s, and one interception. Pitt’s first score of the day came on a 63 yard bomb to WR Jordan Addison, and the Panthers had five passes go for over 30 yards in the game. The Broncos secondary is currently giving up 12.4 yards per pass attempt against FBS opponents – that is a metric that would rank the Broncos dead last in the country. Even when adding in Illinois State’s stat line (29 passing yards on 19 attempts), the Broncos still come in allowing 9.4 yards per attempt. That sounds a little bit better, but would still rank them 121st in the nation. Not great.
This secondary has to figure some things out. The Broncos’ only significant stops on Saturday seemed to come from turnovers, and that’s not really a sustainable formula for good defense. You can’t expect to get three takeaways every single week. This unit has to find a way to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks so that they aren’t left vulnerable on the back end. There is talent on this defense, it’s just a matter of putting everything together.
This is one of the three best teams in the MAC
Western is a program that has struggled with consistency over the past few years, despite having the talent to compete with anybody in the conference. On paper, this version of the Broncos seemed well positioned to make a run at the MAC championship. With that said, they needed to prove their mettle before anybody could take them seriously as a title contender.
Regardless, they have our attention now. With a solid P5 win under their belt, the Broncos get another chance to prove themselves on Saturday, as Nick Starkel and the San Jose State Spartans visit Waldo Stadium in what could be one of the best non-conference Group of Five matchups for this entire season.
Kent State has looked solid in the east, having put up formidable fights against a pair of top ten teams. In the west, defending champion Ball State has not looked right all year, and Toledo followed up their near-upset at Notre Dame with an incredibly disappointing home loss to Colorado State. The Broncos play all three of those teams in consecutive weeks in October, with Kent State and Ball State both having to travel to Kalamazoo. That is the stretch that will define this Broncos season.
The offense has proven they can score on anybody, and I don’t see any MAC defenses slowing them down this year. The defense still has some questions to solve, mainly in the passing game, but I do feel their talent on the back end will show up more prominently once we move into conference play. This Broncos team has all of the pieces needed to get to Ford Field.
Can they put all of those pieces together? Only time will tell.