Last season, Western Michigan beat the Pittsburgh Panthers, the eventual ACC champions, 44-41 at Heinz Field. Tim Lester got his best win during his tenure in Kalamazoo and conversations about a ranked WMU were out there.
Tim Lester credited the win to his experience as the offensive coordinator at Syracuse. His post-game comments about the Pitt defense and what to expect from them were interesting.
Full quote:— Will Graves (@WillGravesAP) September 18, 2021
"I've watched that game three hundred times this week and where they're going to come and how they're going to fit and what our matchups are going to be and what variety of matchups we're going to need to keep the safety off balance."
Tim Lester clearly set up the offense to be successful and Kaleb Eleby, Skyy Moore and Corey Crooms delivered. Eleby threw for 337 yards, 161 of them to Crooms and 124 to Moore.
Sean Tyler and La’Darius Jefferson combined for 162 yards on 36 rushes with three touchdowns. The Broncos were able to get into the matchup they wanted against each look Pitt threw at them.
The defense allowed Kenny Pickett, a future first-round NFL Draft pick to Pittsburgh, to throw for six touchdown passes. Jordan Addison and Jared Wayne did most of the damage with 11 catches and 224 yards between them. Addison found the endzone three times and was a serious problem for the Bronco secondary.
It was without a doubt the highlight of the WMU season. They would win their next two games to get their record to 5-1, and then the wheels would fall off. They went on to lose four of the next six games, all in MAC play.
Kalamazoo doesn’t host a Power Five team, especially a ranked team, very often. What advantages could the Broncos exploit to repeat their winning performance from last season? Can they find a way to win? Let’s take a look.
- Time and Date: Saturday, September 17, 2022, at 7:30 pm Eastern time
- Network: ESPNU (A valid subscription is required.)
- Location: Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Michigan
- Spread/Total: The Panthers are a 10-point favorite with an over/under spread of 47.5 points per OddsShark.
- All-time series: Western Michigan leads the all-time series 1-0. I think that makes them transitive 2021 ACC champions.
The Pitt Panthers through Week 2
The Pittsburgh Panthers have been in two dogfights through the first two weeks of the season. In Week 1 they hosted the Backyard Brawl rivalry game with West Virginia, the first time the teams have played since 2011. They played the next week at home against a ranked Tennessee squad.
The Backyard Brawl with the Mountaineers was a wildly entertaining game. Both teams took some time finding their legs on offense with both teams starting transfer quarterbacks. The second half had a blocked punt that led to a touchdown and the game was sealed on an interception returned for a touchdown with three minutes left in the game. It was just the perfect amount of mess to be wild and the offenses were still making plays. Pitt won 38-31.
Against Tennessee, the Panthers scored a touchdown early in the second quarter to take a 17-7 lead. They would not score again until they reached field goal range at 14:07 left in the fourth quarter and made the kick to pull within four points. Tennessee would answer with a touchdown of their own, then gift the Panthers the ball. Pitt punted the ball with 7:28 left in the game, and the returner fumbled the ball to the Panthers just across midfield. With a ten-play and five-minute drive, Pitt sent the game to overtime with a touchdown.
The overtime period ended when backup quarterback Nick Patti’s pass fell incomplete on fourth-and-goal from the 20.
Just before the end of the first half of the Tennessee game, USC transfer Kedon Slovis left the game after being sacked and fumbling the ball. Slovis would not return during the second half. Nick Patti came in and was injured during the game, but stayed in playing with a noticeable limp.
That is the biggest question facing the Panthers this week is their health at the quarterback position. Head coach Pat Narduzzi has been quiet about individual injury updates, so there are four quarterbacks that may be in play this week. Slovis is the starter but left the game, not able to return. There was a significant statistical drop-off to Nick Patti, but his right leg may keep him out of the game in Kalamazoo.
The third spot on the depth chart could be freshman Nate Yarnell or Dartmouth transfer Derek Kyler. Western Michigan is going to have their hands full game planning for four quarterbacks.
The offense has been built on explosive plays to this point, and those are not a given to happen while changing quarterbacks. They’ve failed to stay on the field consistently, despite being able to get short yards in the running game when they need it.
Running back Israel Abanikanda is averaging 5.1 yards per rush this season, but that number is pretty misleading. He can hit the home run, which he did against Tennessee, but with that one 76-yard run removed, his rushing average drops to 2.8 yards per rush.
The receivers out wide will be familiar to the Broncos, but only one from their matchup last season. Jared Wayne had five catches and an even 100 yards in their game last season and Keonta Mumpfield transferred from MAC rival Akron. He was just about the only weapon Zach Gibson had to target and they torched the Broncos for 11 connections, 122 yards and two touchdowns.
Over on the defensive side of the ball, MJ Devonshire has had the best start in the Panther secondary. He returned the interception against WVU for a touchdown and has three total passes defended.
The bad news for the Broncos is the defensive line for Pitt is exceptional. It’s not only one guy doing it either. David Green has 1.5 sacks, Calijah Kancey has 2.5 tackles for loss and John Morgan III has three tackles for loss. Western will need to neutralize the front to find success on offense. The Broncos gave up seven sacks when playing Michigan State.
The defensive side has been a consistent unit for the Panthers, even if they are a little predictable. The offense has changed a lot coming into this season in personnel and scheme. Kenny Pickett isn’t on that sideline anymore and without him, they have had difficulty creating consistent scoring chances and converting them into points. The Broncos need those things to remain true.
The Western Michigan Broncos through Week 2:
The Broncos started their season at Michigan State with a 35-13 loss that felt a little closer than what the final score suggests. Western Michigan had the ball, behind by only eight points, before the Michigan State offense hit some big plays to pull away.
The offense left some points on the field and the defense gave up too many big plays, but the Broncos didn’t embarrass themselves and Michigan State left feeling like they didn’t play well. That’s a plus. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jack Salopek was the most impressive player given the circumstances. In his first collegiate start, he didn’t look overwhelmed and took care of the ball.
Last week, the Broncos went to Muncie to play Ball State and escaped with a win. They were losing by nine in the third quarter and rallied back to win by seven, 37-30. It was another close game between these two programs with seven lead changes in total.
The last touchdown of the game was a 60-yard run by Sean Tyler that the Broncos had been waiting for all afternoon. Ball State turned the ball over on downs and Western Michigan ran a perfect four-minute drive to end the game.
The Bronco defense should be the strength of the team through this stretch of the season, but they’ve been plagued by the same problems of previous Lou Esposito defenses. They are extremely aggressive in stopping the run and getting after the quarterback, and when it works they force punts. When they get caught on a corner blitz, a run that might go for seven or eight yards ends up going for 50.
Last year against Pitt, Kenny Pickett found wide-open receivers due to defensive backs being put on islands in man coverage. The quarterback situation for Pitt only helps the Broncos but power five backup quarterbacks can make the throws to receivers not being covered.
On the offensive side, there should be some confidence that Salopek and Lester can come into this game prepared for the Pitt defense. Lester showed last year he can make a game plan to give the Broncos an advantage and Salopek entered the game last year and played well.
Quarterback Kaleb Eleby left the game early in the second half for one drive and Salopek completed all three passes that he attempted. It’s an extremely small sample, but outside of throwing three touchdown passes, it went as well as it could. Salopek will know what to do with the ball, but can he execute as well as Eleby did last year?
Skyy Moore is an NFL receiver now, but Jehlani Galloway has been reliable in his role as a starter. The current Bronco roster is not capable of replacing Moore, their aim is to be different and just as effective in a new way. Corey Crooms carved up the Pitt secondary last year and looks to do the same at Waldo Stadium.
The Bronco offense goes forward, rarely getting stuffed on a run, and is ultra-aggressive in the redzone. When they get into opponent territory, if the fourth down is reasonable, about 3 yards and shorter, it’s four down territory. So far this season the Broncos have done a good job of turning redzone attempts into touchdowns, not field goals, and that’s how upsets happen. The Broncos have made their field goal attempts this year, but they won’t beat Pitt with field goals.
The MAC had a dreadful week two with multiple FCS upsets happening. This week is different.
Western Michigan has played tough on the road twice. This game is their home opener, at night against a ranked opponent. They won this game last year and played well in their two games in 2022. Waldo Stadium will be packed to see a repeat performance of last year's game. Salopek is capable, and offensive coordinator Jeff Thorne and Tim Lester will have a plan to keep him upright against a good Pitt defensive line.
The Pitt Panther’s offense has played a tough schedule so far and given up three sacks in each game. Their starting quarterback and the backup were been banged up last week and there is uncertainty about who will be ready. After two big games at home, it might more difficult to generate the same energy for a road trip to a MAC school.
It’s a tough game for the Broncos and they don’t have much margin for error, but have faith.
Western Michigan 27