No. 23 Pitt takes on Western Michigan this Saturday, Sept. 17 in their first road test and their only game against a group five opponent this season.
The Panthers lost last season to the Broncos at home, 44-41, as the defense gave up 516 yards and the offense turned the ball over three times. Despite the Panthers’ stellar play for most of the remainder of the 2021 season, including winning the ACC Championship, the loss to the Broncos ended up a big blemish on their record.
Western Michigan started this season with a loss to Michigan State, but followed it up with a win over MAC foe, Ball State on the road. Head coach Tim Lester spoke in a press conference on Wednesday about the matchup against Pitt. He began with saying how excited he is to play a game against a ranked opponent at home in front of a raucous crowd.
“Obviously excited to play at Waldo [Stadium] in front of our students and our fans and have a chance to pack this place for Pitt,” Lester said. “I played here and this environment is special…the guys are fired up here to play in front of a home crowd. To bring in a top 25 team in here, that’s a great football team.”
Lester said that the win last year doesn’t mean anything for this season. Pitt’s offense is not led by Heisman finalist quarterback Kenny Pickett and Frank Cignetti Jr. serving as offensive coordinator means their is a different game plan from when Mark Whipple was offensive coordinator. The one thing that he knows going into the matchup is that this Pitt team will bring the energy and that he needs his team to match it.
“…But we know they’re going to be physical, Lester said. “You don’t go and win the ACC without being a physical team. We pride ourselves in being physical as well so we know it’s going to be a hard fought game. To have a top 25 team come in here. They know us, we know them and it’s going to be a real exciting time to go out there and really challenge ourselves and see if we can take care of the ball and be physical and try to slow down a really good team. It’s a great challenge for our guys.”
Lester said it’s a unique situation to play Pitt twice in consecutive seasons, comparing it to preparation for a conference opponent, like Central Michigan. They have film on Central Michigan, what they do well and don’t do well, and also film playing them, showing where they need to improve.
“It’ll be a harder challenge with some of the new stuff they do,” Lester said. “It really comes down to we got to make sure we are in the right scheme, we’re attacking the weakness of their defense and then at that point you have to execute against a really good player. So with some of the new stuff they’re doing, with them seeing what we did last year a ton of times now, we have to try to stay one step ahead of the curve. So we can’t just run the same stuff. There’s going to be some variety and as they put in new stuff, that stuff has different weaknesses too.”
After the victory, Lester said that his team played great and executed on all areas of the field to earn the upset. He also noticed teams tried to copy the Broncos’ formula for success against the Panthers the rest of the season.
“Everyone has been repeating our game,” Lester said. “Everyone’s been running it. We didn’t watch them after we played them last year, but now we’ve gone back and watched UVA run it and Clemson…I mean all these teams are running basically what we did and they’ve gotten better at stopping it.”
Heading into the matchup, Lester is preparing his offense to take on Pitt’s defense, particularly the stout defensive line, led by redshirt seniors Habakkuk Baldonado and Tyler Bentley, but most importantly redshirt junior Calijah Kancey.
He compared Kancey to Pitt great Aaron Donald and that he has the ability to ‘wreck’ a play all by himself, even when facing a double team. He said that in the game last year, Kancey almost disrupted a number of plays and that he credits his team for managing to not allow him to have such a big game.
“Kancey is a guy who I talked about all last year,” Lester said. “You know we talk to scouts a lot and they ask, “Who have you seen?” and he was the guy for me. The guy that I’ve seen on film who I see playing on Sundays without any doubt, it’s him…I don’t know if we’ll face a defensive lineman that’s power strength, speed, has that combination of all those things. If you’re talking about an interior defensive lineman, I don’t think we’re going to face anyone near him.”
Lester faces a conundrum when facing the Panthers on Saturday in terms of who will play quarterback. Both starting quarterback, senior Kedon Slovis and backup, redshirt senior Nick Patti suffered injuries in the loss to Tennessee last weekend.
He said that he spends most of Sunday working on a report for the opposing quarterback every week, one of his favorite parts of the job. He already watched Slovis and Patti and the defense is watching both redshirt first-year Nate Yarnell and Dartmouth transfer, redshirt senior Derek Kyler, just in case the first two signal-callers don’t play.
“They all have their strengths and weaknesses,” Lester said. “So I think you just be prepared for all of it, but be ready for the guy who’s calling the plays, who does a great job to call it to help the quarterback that’s in the game. As far as other than the top two guys…They’re not going to change the offense, they’re just going to call more of the plays that help the athletes and hopefully have success.”
For Pitt, this is the first Group of 5 away game since Akron in 2015. Pitt should’ve played Marshall away in 2020, but that game did not occur due to the rescheduling around COVID-19.
It is usually not a common theme for Power 5 schools to play Group 5 schools on their home turf, but it’s been a more regular occurrence this season. In just Week 1, Old Dominion defeated Virginia Tech at home and both Appalachian State and East Carolina almost pulled off upsets of in-state Power 5 schools, North Carolina and NC State, respectively, on their home turfs.
“The fact that we can get a team like Pitt to come here and our guys to play in an atmosphere at home against a great time is unique,” Lester said. “It’s making college football better and better.”
Group 5 schools upsetting Power 5 schools is also becoming far more common. Appalachian State defeated No. 6 Texas A&M, Marshall toppled No. 8 Notre Dame and Georgia Southern beat Nebraska, all on the road in Week 2.
Lester attributes those victories to the transfer portal, saying that coaches now have the ability to replace players easily, even if they miss in recruiting. He also mentioned that Georgia Southern quarterback, Kyle Vantrease, transferred from Buffalo this offseason and played a big part in the victory over Nebraska.
“It’s making everyone better,” Lester said. “I mean you look at Mumpfield from Akron. He was a stud last year and now he’s playing for Pitt and their quarterback’s from USC. Then you look at our team. We have a wideout from Boston College [Jelani Galloway], a safety from Pitt [Bricen Garner] and a corner from Purdue [Anthony Romphf]. I think it’s helping everyone, as far as the football competition goes…I think the non-Power 5 schools are getting some opportunities to get guys that aren’t playing who wanna play.”