Pitt Football Week 3 Matchup - Let Kenny Cook Against Western Michigan

Photo obtained from pittsburghpanthers.com

The one thing the Western Michigan Broncos slightly have going for them over the Pitt Panthers this weekend at Heinz Field is experience.  While Pitt has 14 returning starters from the 2020 season, Western Michigan has 19 returning from a team that finished 4-2 in the MAC last season.  This puts the Broncos in the top 30 in the nation for returning starters. 

Other than that, Pitt should has the edge in every other facet of the game.

Broncos Running Into Panther Wall

Western Michigan wants to be a run-first offense.  In their game last week against Illinois State, the Broncos threw just 22 times while running the ball 51 of their plays.  Even in their opener where they were stomped by Michigan, and had to pass most of the 2nd half, the Broncos play calling was still 32 rushes vs 37 passes.  They are looking to run the ball. 

This bodes well for the Panther defense.  Pitt has been dominant up front.  The Panther front seven will be one of the best in the nation throughout this entire season.  Most of the rushing yards they have given up this season were from Tennessee starting quarterback Joe Milton scrambling from pressure.  If the first two games for Pitt has taught us anything, looking to run first against this defense will not bode well for the Broncos.

Additionally, the weak spot for Pitt’s defense will be hard to exploit for the Broncos.  Against Tennessee, and even UMass, it was clear that receivers were getting separation downfield against the Panther secondary.  There were several deep balls in both games where the quarterbacks simply missed wide open receivers for potential scores. 

Luckily, this season, Western Michigan starting quarterback, Kaleb Eleby, is averaging just 6.3 yards per completion this season versus 11.6 last season.  This could have something to do with Dee Eskridge, the leading receiver and best deep threat for the Broncos in 2020, entering the NFL draft.  Eskridge now plays for the Seattle Seahawks. 

Junior receiver Jaylen Hall is still there as a deep threat for Eleby and the Bronco offense.  However, opposing safeties can be relieved this season having just one deep threat to cover instead of two when Eskridge was still in college with the Broncos.  You can occasionally double team one receiver, but it’s impossible to double team two and still be successful. 

Therefore, the Panther defense should have little problem containing Eleby and the Broncos.  If Pitt can focus a safety on Hall and their front seven can continue to dominate opposing run games, Western Michigan will not put up much more than the 14 points they scored against Michigan in their opener.

Let Kenny Cook

The other side of the ball is a little more concerning.  Whether it was because Michigan was up by so much or they just have a dominant run game, the Broncos got thrashed on the ground.  Michigan rushed for 335 yards on 43 attempts. 

However, Pitt has not shown much ability to run the ball so far this season.  It may be tough for them to exploit what appears to be a huge issue with Western Michigan’s defense.  In fact, no Panther running back has broken the 50-yard mark on the season. 

Admittedly, this is cherry picking stats a bit as the Panthers had nine different players with rush attempts against UMass.  Surely, if the attempts had been more concentrated it would have padded those stats and led to a 50-yard rusher.  

However, senior running back, Vincent Davis, could not get anything going in his 19 attempts against Tennessee.  He averaged just 1.7 yards per carry.  Luckily, Israel Abanikanda picked up the slack with 3.6 per carry on his 12 attempts, but offensive coordinator Mark Whipple doesn’t seem ready to fully unleash him yet.  Maybe Saturday will be the game Abanikanda emerges as the true starter of the running back room.

Also, even if Pitt cannot get the run game fully going, Pickett was masterful against Tennessee last week in Knoxville.  My motto for this Panther offense moving forward is "Let Kenny cook."  Because when they do, the Panthers look nearly unstoppable offensively.  

Pickett seemed unfazed by the home crowd of over 100k, completing 24 of his 36 attempts without an interception.  In fact, he looked exactly like you’d expect a 5th-year quarterback to look against a low-level SEC team.

When Whipple lets Pickett take over, he has been extremely impressive so far.  I see him having no problem working well against this Bronco defense even if the Panthers can’t get anything going on the ground.  Let Kenny cook.

Similar to the matchup against Tennessee, I was worried about this weekend’s game when looking at the schedule from a high level.  Western Michigan is a decent team and I feared this tough MAC opponent would be overlooked by the Panthers.

However, the more I dig into this matchup, the more I like Pitt to win this game handedly.  They are better in all facets of the game and even Sam Scarton has started to see the early kicking worries for the Panthers start to vanish.  Scarton went 7/7 last week with two field goals and five extra points. 

The line for the game is currently Pitt -15.  I would be more comfortable at -13, but the home crowd should give the Panthers that extra three points any Pitt bettors are hoping for.  Take the Panthers by two touchdowns this week, sweat it a little in the first half, but ultimately you’ll get the win.

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