The Western Michigan Broncos (1-2, 1-0 Mid-American Confernce) played host to a hobbled and conservative Pittsburgh Panthers (2-1) crew who was missing several key contributors ( including their first two quarterbacks) on Saturday, but were ultimately unable to pull off the upset, losing by a final of 34-13 on Saturday night.
The Broncos were within a score for most of the game, but struggled to move the ball at every point.
The big question coming into the game surrounded the Pitt quarterback situation. Before the game, it was revealed that regular backup, Nick Patti, didn’t travel with the team to Kalamazoo. Starting quarterback Kedon Slovis left the Tennessee game the week before with an undisclosed injury and his status was a game-time decision.
Slovis was determined to not be in playing shape, leaving redshirt freshman Nate Yarnell to be the starter. Early on, it was apparent the Pitt coaching staff was determined to use him as little as possible.
Pitt took the opening kick and was content to run the ball and not stress the quarterback in his first collegiate start. Yarnell completed his first pass on a third-and-18 conversion in front of Ware. The Pitt drive ended with a field goal after a run on third-and-10 failed to get to the line to gain.
The Bronco offense was overmatched almost immediately. Their best offensive play was a defensive penalty. They punted after two runs and an incomplete pass.
The Bronco defense forced a punt after missing on a run blitz and giving up an 11-yard rush. It was a recurring theme of the first half. If WMU got a stop, there was a chunk play for a first down somewhere in the drive. After an ultra-conservative run on 3rd and 6, Pitt punted.
Disaster struck on the Bronco’s next play.
A slow developing pass, telegraphed by a blocking receiver, was intercepted and returned for the only touchdown of the first half.
The next Bronco possession was a quick three-and-out. The punt was muffed when a Pitt player pushed a Bronco gunner into the returner. The return man never touched the ball, but it did bounce off his teammate and was recovered by the Broncos. Western Michigan threw a fifteen-yard pass to Jehlani Galloway to get into field goal range. Palmer Domschke kicked a 32-yard field goal to make it a one-possession game.
Pitt completed a two-yard pass that ran for 18 more, and burned cornerback Anthony Romphf for 39 yards. By the time the Broncos got to a third down, it was third and goal from the five-yard line. The pass fell harmlessly to the back corner of the endzone and was well defended by Romphf. The Panthers settled for a field goal to extend the lead back to ten.
The next Bronco drive was their best of the first half, despite almost ending before it started. Salopek's pass on first down hit a linebacker in the numbers, but he’s a linebacker, not a receiver. Jefferson slipped through a gap for 16 yards and then a defensive pass interference moved the ball 15 more yards. A bad snap put the Broncos behind the chains and forced them into a field goal attempt. Domschke made another one and the Broncos hung around.
With seven minutes left in the half, Pitt wide receiver Jared Wayne got behind Romphf for 35 yards. Wayne was injured on the play and did not play for the remainder of the game. On a critical third-and-five, Zaire Barnes broke up the pass in the endzone and forced Pitt to attempt a field goal. Ben Sauls missed the 27-yard field goal and it remained a one-score game at halftime.
The first-half stats were ugly for both offenses, but especially for Western Michigan. Salopek completed three passes on seven attempts for 28-yards. The ground game ran for 30 total yards on 12 attempts, with no sacks to adjust for. It was ugly.
Pitt was able to run the ball with moderate success with a 4-yard average. Yarnell wasn’t asked to throw much, but he was efficient. He passed for 108 yards on five passes. Three went to Wayne for 94 yards.
Western Michigan started the second half with the ball and started to get the offense going a little. Salopek connected with Crooms on third-and-eight, then turned the ball over with what was effectively an arm punt. He was forcing the ball to Crooms deep, but the safety was still over the top of the route. Salopek left the throw to the side of Crooms that the safety Erick Hallett II was on and he beat Crooms for the jump ball.
The Bronco defense gave a little momentum back to the Broncos with a sack on third down by WMU linebacker Ryan Selig to force Pitt to punt.
Zahir Abdus-Salaam had a nice 12-yard return to get the Broncos close to midfield. The running backs started to show signs of life with a couple of runs over 5 yards and the backup quarterback, Mareyohn Hrabowski, came into the drive to be an extra runner. He was on the field for a fourth-and-two conversion to keep the drive alive before handing the keys back to Salopek. On third-and-five, Salopek made his best game pass to Crooms for 18 yards.
With the ball at the Pitt seven-yard line, Salopek was sacked by an unblocked blitz to create a third-and-goal from the 15. Salopek threw a ball to the endzone, but it was intercepted again by Hallett. A major scoring opportunity was squandered.
Pitt faced a 3rd and 6 on the next series and a weak defensive pass interference penalty on safety Delano Ware gave the Panthers a fresh set of downs. The Broncos promptly bit on a play-action pass and left a tight end wide open for a catch and run down to the four-yard line. The Panthers scored on the next play.
The Bronco offense showed the only magic they had on the next drive. Wide receiver Anthony Sambucci fought off the cornerback and caught a 44-yard pass down the left sideline. With the ball on the Pitt 31, Sambucci caught a backward lateral and connected with AJ Abbott in the endzone to pull back within seven.
It was the most dangerous the Broncos were all night. It took a big play that they struggled to connect on all night and a trick play. The upset was not in the cards for this year’s Bronco squad.
Pitt ground the Bronco front seven into dust on the next two drives. Pitt ran the ball 52 times in this game and the fatigue showed down the stretch. Plays that were two-yard rushes in the first half were going for eight now. The contact was still being made close to the line, but the pile was moving in favor of Pitt. They scored on two drives of 20 total plays and 141 yards, chewing up 11:21 of game clock. Pitt attempted two passes across these drives, and both were completed.
When WMU had the ball in the fourth quarter they produced two three-and-outs. The drives combined to go for -1 yard. The end of the game was a tough scene for the Bronco faithful.
Without the early pick-six, the game is totally different. Neither offense scored until the second half and the defensive score was the difference until the fourth quarter. Coming out of the half tied, anything could have happened.
That isn’t the world we live in. Time to learn and move on.
The Pitt Panthers head back home to play FCS Rhode Island, and the Broncos set their sites west, taking the long trip to San Jose, California to play the San Jose State Spartans.