Western Michigan football picked up its first win over a Power 5 team under Tim Lester Saturday when the Broncos beat Pitt 44-41.
The win, which featured the defense forcing three turnovers and Kaleb Eleby throwing for over 300 yards and three touchdowns, brings the Broncos to 2-1 on the season.
The Broncos got the ball first and were driving down the field with an efficient short passing game from Eleby before the drive stalled and Parker Sampson missed a 43-yard field goal attempt. A pair of three-and-outs followed before Pitt got the first points of the game.
It was a 67-yard pass from Kenny Pickett to Jordan Addison that secured a one-play touchdown drive for the Panthers. For Bronco fans, it elicited immediate flashbacks to just two weeks ago when the WMU defense allowed big play after big play in a blowout loss to Michigan.
Just like two weeks ago, WMU followed a quick early touchdown by its opponent with a methodical touchdown drive of its own. A drive that at one point included five consecutive plays that resulted in a first down ended with a one-yard touchdown run for Sean Tyler to tie the game at seven apiece.
On Pitt’s next drive, Pickett was scrambling on a third and long, trying his best to get a first down for his team when Corvin Moment forced the ball loose from his hands and Zaire Barnes would come up with it to set up the Bronco offense with a short field. Pickett also came away from the play hurt and would miss the Panthers’ next two offensive series.
WMU took immediate advantage of the short field with Eleby finding Jaylen Hall for a catch inside the five-yard line. The Broncos needed all four goal-to-go downs, but La’Darius Jefferson punched in his first touchdown of the afternoon to make it a 14-7 Bronco lead.
Harrison Taylor helped the Bronco defense to a big fourth-down stop to once again get a short field for the offense, and when Skyy Moore’s defender slipped and fell on a play-action pass, Pitt had no chance to stop him from going in for a 30-yard score in his hometown. A missed extra point attempt left the score at 20-7.
With Pickett back on the field, Pitt would author back-to-back touchdown drives around a quick three-and-out by the Broncos. The first drive was aided by two pass interference calls on WMU and ended with a two-yard touchdown pass to Lucas Krull. The second drive took just three plays, once again ending in a Pickett to Addison touchdown pass, this time from 23 yards out. The Panthers returned the favor of a missed extra point and the score was tied, 20-20.
After WMU once again stalled offensively, the Panthers handed it the ball back with a bad snap/handoff combo causing a fumble once again recovered by Barnes to give the Broncos an immediate first and goal. After a missed connection between Eleby and Tyler earlier on a third and goal, the pair connected on second down from the five-yard line for a touchdown to regain the lead, 27-20.
Dorian Jackson, another Pittsburgh-area native making a trip to his hometown with the Broncos, made the first interception of Pickett this season to give the ball back to the offense looking for a two-score lead before halftime. No such luck would come Western Michigan’s way as a sack and late hit personal foul combined to give it a third and 31, eventually leading to a punt.
Pitt had just 1:49 on the clock to make something happen, and proved that was more than enough time as Pickett found Addison in the end zone for the third time in the half. The 28-yard touchdown strike capped the Panthers’ third scoring drive of under one minute as WMU owned the time of possession battle but no advantage could be found on the scoreboard.
The WMU defense looked energized coming out of the locker room, forcing back-to-back three-and-outs around an offensive drive that saw the Broncos gain two first downs but be stopped on a fourth-and-two in Pitt territory. Jack Salopek was briefly in at quarterback for WMU on its drive, as Eleby was receiving an IV to stay hydrated as he battled the defensive pressure and mid-80s temperatures in Pittsburgh.
With just over seven and a half minutes in the third quarter, Eleby found a way to strike again, finding Corey Crooms, who had himself a huge day. Eleby hit Crooms down the middle for what looked like a simple first down until Brandon Hill came barreling in trying to help Erick Hallet bring Crooms down, and instead Hill crashed into Hallet and Crooms sprung free for a 55-yard touchdown reception to put the Broncos back ahead 34-27.
Pickett was not going to let that lead last for long though, throwing and scrambling his way down the field before finding Krull for his second touchdown catch of the ballgame. It was a 24-yard pass to cap the drive and an extra point put the teams back even at 34-34.
The Broncos responded with a 12-play drive, plus two penalties that resulted in a play being waived off, to respond just after the game flipped to the fourth quarter. A drive that included the Broncos going from second-and-25 to third-and-12 to a 25-yard pass to Crooms to stay alive ended with a 3-yard scoot by Jefferson to make it 41-34 WMU.
Another major penalty made Pitt go from third-and-four to third-and-19 on its next drive, but 18 on third down and two more on fourth kept the drive alive. Later, on a fourth-and-six play, Ali Fayad made sure the defense made it off the field by wrapping up Pickett behind the line for one of Western Michigan’s two sacks in the game.
WMU would drive down and earn a goal-to-go situation once again, but took a costly sack of its own as Eleby went down in the backfield with Phil Campbell being given credit for the sack after about three different Panther defenders had a shot at Eleby in the backfield. The Broncos settled for a 29-yard field goal, its first of the season to move to 1-3 on field goal attempts, to make it a two-score game with 5:37 to play.
Pickett once again made things interesting when he tied Dan Marino’s school record for passing touchdowns in a game (six) by finding Jaylon Barden for a 22-yard score to make it 44-41 WMU with 3:48 remaining on the clock.
WMU survived a backward run on first down by Tyler with a huge third-down pass to Crooms after Pitt had used its first timeout with 2:58 remaining. Another first down loss, this time by Jefferson, was nullified by a 34-yard Tyler carry that gave WMU a first down and forced Pitt to use its final timeout with 2:07 remaining. Three more carries for the Broncos ran out the clock for a signature win over a likely bowl game-bound Power 5 team.
In the win, Eleby was 23-35 for 336 yards and three scores. His favorite targets on the afternoon were Moore and Crooms, with Crooms ending the game with eight catches for 161 yards and a touchdown while Moore caught 11 passes for 124 yards and a score of his own.
Tyler led the ground attack with 84 yards on 14 carries (six yards per carry) and a touchdown to go with three catches for 11 yards and another score. Jefferson ran the ball 22 times for 78 yards (3.5 per carry) with a pair of house calls.
Barnes was huge for the WMU defense, making 10 tackles, two for loss, and finding his way on top of two fumbles. Moment had six tackles to go with his forced fumble while Jackson had three tackles, including one in the backfield, in addition to his interception.
For Pitt, Pickett was 23-31 for 382 yards with six touchdowns, but his interception and pair of fumbles proved costly. Pickett also served as the Panthers’ leading rusher with 49 yards on 10 carries. Addison had six catches for 124 yards and three scores while Jared Wayne added five catches for 100 yards. Habakkuk Baldonado caused problems defensively for the Panthers with seven tackles, 2.5 for loss, and a sack.
The Broncos return home next Saturday to face the reigning Mountain West Champion San Jose State. Kickoff for WMU against the currently 1-1 Spartans (pending results from this week at Hawaii) is set for 2 p.m. and the game will be streamed on ESPN+.