KALAMAZOO, Mi. — Nate Yarnell hadn’t made a start since Nov. 29, 2019 — a playoff game against Weslaco High School in Lake Travis’s Texas Class-6A state playoff game.
He missed his senior season to injury, after starting just six games behind now-Texas quarterback Hudson Card as a junior, and he redshirted last season. He hadn’t even seen the football field in a competitive game since 2019. But that didn’t stop him from coming into Kalamazoo, Michigan Saturday night and capping a solid performance with a touchdown pass to Konata Mumpfield to push Pitt’s fourth quarter lead to 13.
And while Yarnell led Pitt’s limited offense, unsurprising given the circumstances, he did not look out of place leading Pitt to a win.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible if not for 31 carries, racking up 133 yards and a touchdown, from Israel Abanikanda. Pitt’s defense forced three turnovers — including two interceptions from Erick Hallett and a pick-six from Marquis Williams — and escaped Kalamazoo with a 34-31 victory Saturday night at Waldo Stadium.
When Kedon Slovis walked out with the captains before the opening coin toss, helmet firmly snapped on, it only added another layer to the quarterback uncertainty swirling around Pitt this week.
However, the football Gods determined that Pitt’s great quarterback mystery could remain a secret no longer, and when Western Michigan won the opening toss and deferred, Pitt’s offense trotted out onto the offense — with Slovis standing on the sideline with his helmet now in hand.
Yarnell only threw one pass during Pitt’s first two possessions, a nicely thrown 19-yard toss across the middle of the field to Konata Mumpfield to convert a 3rd-and-18, which could’ve been a potential confidence booster, but it was the Israel Abanikanda Show early.
Abanikanda received the lion’s share of carries in the first quarter, 11 to the combined four between C’Bo Flemister, Vincent Davis and Yarnell himself, and he finished the half with 16 carries — and a handful of kick returns. It was a busy half for Abanikanda, but it was Pitt’s defense that scored the contest’s first touchdown.
Following a 48-yard field goal from Ben Sauls to cap a 7-and-a-half minute opening drive, and a short drive each from Pitt and WMU, Salopek led the Western Michigan offense back onto the field, targeted Corey Crooms along the sideline on the first snap of the drive and Marquis Williams read the play the whole way.
Williams jumped the route and raced 24 yards back to the end zone to put Pitt up by 10 points — Pitt’s second pick-six in the last three games and the fourth defensive touchdown in the last five games as a whole. It gave Yarnell a bit of breathing room and the opportunity to open up the playbook a bit, but Pitt’s staff saw it as a chance to continue to pound the ball on the ground against WMU’s defensive line.
Pitt forced a quick three and out following Williams’ pick-six, but as Jehvonn Lewis blocked a WMU’s Dorian Jackson right into Jaylon Barden as he awaited the punt, Barden has no opportunity to field the ball as it bounced off the scrum of bodies — touching Pitt last and being recovered by WMU. A 32-yard field goal from Palmer Donschke would get WMU on the board.
The Pitt offense did open a bit following the WMU field goal, Yarnell finding Jared Wayne open in the flat off a roll out for a 20-yard pickup. And the pair connected once again on a nicely thrown 39-yard over-the-shoulder grab to move Pitt into the red zone. The drive would stall out inside the red zone, but Sauls’s second field goal of the game — a 23 yarder — was enough to push Pitt back up 10 points.
Western Michigan would subsequently tack on another field goal, a 40 yarder from Donschke this time, following its strongest offensive drive of the half. And despite another connection between Yarnell and Wayne, 32 yards on a downfield play that could’ve likely tacked on a personal foul, Ben Sauls hooked a 27-yard field goal inside — his third miss in just under six quarters.
Pitt emerged from the locker room after half, received the second half kick-off and there was a little bit of redemption for Erick Hallett earned a bit of redemption following last season’s tough performance — especially when covering Crooms.
Crooms tried to find Crooms downfield, launching a ball into contested coverage downfield and Hallett found himself in good position underneath the route to win the battle against Crooms and rip the interception away. However, the offense quickly went three and out. But Hallett wasn’t done with his redemption tour.
On a defensive possession in which Habakkuk Baldonado and Marquis Williams left the field with injuries, the Pitt defense once again held at the goal line — Hallett diving for an interception in the end zone to corral his second interception of the game and give Pitt’s offense another chance to push the lead.
A defensive pass interference call gave Pitt new life on the following possession. Yarnell rolled out on first down and found Bub Means for an 18-yard connection, and Flemister followed with a hard-fought nine yards through the heart of the WMU defense. A play-action roll out from Yarnell — a play call that led to most of his yards on the night — allowed him to find a streaking Gavin Bartholomew for a 37-yard gain to get down inside the 5-yard line. And Abanikanda capped it with four-yard touchdown run.
Western Michigan was deterred by the Pitt score and quickly — and I mean quickly — countered. Salopek uncorked his best throw of the night down the sideline to Anthony Sambucci for a 44-yard gain. And two plays later, WMU ran a double pass play, Salopek finding Sambucci behind the line scrimmage, who then found A.J. Abbott for a wide-open 31-yard touchdown.
Pitt’s defense did enough to limit Western Michigan’s throughout the second half, and Yarnell completed his first career college touchdown pass to Mumpfield from six yards out to push Pitt’s lead to 13 points. And Daniel Carter capped the fourth quarter with a three-yard touchdown dive to push the lead to 34-13.
Yarnell completed 9-of-12 passing attempts for 179 yards and a touchdown. And while it was an efficient, sparingly used night for Yarnell, he didn’t make any poor decisions. It was a strong debut for Yarnell, especially considering his last game action came nearly three years prior.
Wayne led the way with three receptions for 94 yards — all before the half. Mumpfield caught three passes for 35 yards and a touchdown, and Gavin Bartholomew turned his one reception into a 37-yard gain. Davis spelled Abanikanda with 11 carries for 83 yards, Flemister added 28 yards on the ground and Carter scored a rushing touchdown.
Hallett picked off two passes, Williams returned his interception for a touchdown and SirVocea Dennis and Solomon DeShields recorded sacks.
Pitt will return to Pittsburgh to host Rhode Island for a noon game at Acrisure Stadium next Saturday. Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech will then travel to Pittsburgh to open ACC play at the Ac.