Western Michigan football is looking for its first win over a Power 5 program under Tim Lester when it heads to Pittsburgh Saturday.
The Broncos are coming off of a 28-0 defensive masterpiece against Illinois State in which WMU allowed just 57 yards of total offense to tie a school record. Pitt beat Tennessee 41-34 last week in its first matchup against an SEC opponent under Pat Narduzzi.
“It’s nice to know a little bit about some of their players,” Lester said about having transfers from Pitt on the Broncos’ roster. “(Therran Coleman and Bricen Garner) are both complementary about what they do well and what we’re going to have to know about to play them.”
This weekend’s matchup is the first-ever meeting between WMU and Pittsburgh, with the two schools in agreement to play again next season in Kalamazoo. Lester and Narduzzi, however, have a prior relationship from coaching against one another and Lester interviewing for a job on Narduzzi’s staff in the past.
“For the past four, five years I’ve been able to go to a lot of the head coaching (meetings) and we’ve crossed paths a lot at that,” Lester said. “He’s a guy that I trust to call when they’re changing rules and stuff and just asking him how he’s handling it. They were looking for an offensive coordinator at one point and I got the opportunity to interview for him.”
Here is what to watch for when the Broncos and Panthers square off for the first time on the gridiron.
WMU offense vs Pitt defense
At first glance, the Pitt defense is talented in terms of pass defense, surrendering only 202 yards per game to its first two opponents. This is largely due to the play of the secondary, specifically the safety duo of Brandon Hill and Erick Hallett II. The pair has a combined 15 tackles and one interception on the young season, so it will be imperative that quarterback Kaleb Eleby look off the safeties and pick his spots correctly when attempting to go downfield.
The Broncos get some much needed help back in the receiving game this week with Skyy Moore set to make his return after he suffered a knee injury during the contest against Michigan. Moore’s speed will be critical if deep threat Jaylen Hall is blanketed by the Pitt defense downfield. Lester holds an incredible amount of praise for Moore, and his ability to quickly get across the middle of the field and burn defenders is a dynamic that the WMU offense sorely missed in its previous contest.
The main focus of the Bronco offense should realistically be what it has been all season; utilize the talented pair of La’Darius Jefferson and Sean Tyler to establish the run game. In Pitt’s previous matchup against Tennessee, the Volunteers ran for 136 yards, 54 of which came from quarterback Joe Milton.
“Being able to have different styles of backs running at a defense the whole game, that can wear them down. It’s a talented group, and they have a lot of faith in the guys in front of them,” Lester said on how talented WMU is at running back.
If Western Michigan can gash some solid yards out of Pitt’s defense, it allows the Broncos to hold onto the ball longer and control the flow of the game, a factor that desperately needs to be in WMU’s favor if it wants any chance of achieving the victory.
Establishing the run game will start with what was touted as possibly the best offensive line in the MAC this season. So far, the group has struggled out of the gate, with Lester voicing his frustrations about them not keeping Eleby upright in pocket passing situations. If WMU can rectify this, it will give Eleby some excellent chances to throw the ball downfield and show why he was one of the best quarterbacks in the FBS at completing passes last season.
WMU defense vs Pitt offense
Kenny Pickett, Kenny Pickett, Kenny Pickett. That is the Bronco defense’s focus for this week as Pickett is essential to everything Pitt does offensively. Pickett has completed 70% of his pass attempts so far this year, including an 11-11 stretch against Tennessee last week as he helped the Panthers to a 41-34 win. Pickett also has four touchdown passes and a touchdown run without giving away any turnovers.
“It’s going to be hard,” Lester said about carrying over the defensive success the Broncos had against Illinois State. “(Pitt is) explosive and their quarterback is really athletic… We kept it simple last week, we didn’t do too much, we really focused on our details and eye discipline, focused on the things we needed to focus on. And we tackled better.”
Pitt will spread the ball around plenty, as Taysir Mack, Jared Wayne, Jordan Addison and Lucas Krull all have at least seven catches and 90 yards receiving through two games. Addison and Krull have two touchdown catches apiece while Mack leads the team with 134 receiving yards on just seven catches, providing a deep threat for the Panthers.
WMU will have a banged-up secondary to defend Pitt’s plethora of pass-catchers, as Lester said the team will be without DaShon Bussell and AJ Thomas Saturday.
“I don’t think AJ Thomas is going to play this week,” Lester said Wednesday. “It’s not a season-ending injury by any means but I don’t think he’s going to be ready… Bussell’s the same way. (We’re) hoping to get Delano Ware back, he played week one, missed week two.”
Having Ware back will allow the Broncos to pair him with Pitt transfer Garner at safety and not have to dip into younger, less experienced players at the position. Lester listed St. Francis transfer and Pittsburgh native Dorian Jackson as someone who will likely see extra playing time at cornerback with Bussell out. Jackson will pair with another Pitt transfer in Coleman, with Keni-H lovely also likely to see key snaps.
Pitt has struggled a bit with its run game even behind an experienced offensive line, being held to 96 yards on 45 rush attempts against Tennessee last week. Three players (Pickett, Israel Abanikanda and Vincent Davis) have run the ball at least 10 times for the Panthers this season, and they have a combined 3.3 yards per attempt with none of them over four yards per carry. Davis leads the team with 25 rush attempts and has two touchdowns, but just 65 yards to show for it.
The WMU defense that has produced 10 tackles for loss and six sacks in two games will look to cause problems for Pitt, especially with star defensive tackle Ralph Holley going against players such as center Owen Drexel, a redshirt senior who made just one career start before 2021 and Maryland transfer Marcus Minor at left guard.
The Broncos will also be without linebacker Ryan Selig, but Matthew Stuckey impressed in Selig’s absence with four tackles and a sack last week and will look to continue to make big plays against Pitt.
Ben: Pitt 41, WMU 24
Collin: Pitt 38, WMU 28
Kickoff for Saturday's game is set for noon. The game will air regionally on Bally Sports Network and be streamed on ESPN3.