The road to an ACC title doesn't usually run through Heinz Field. But with continued success — buoyed by the toughness that is the Pittsburgh Panthers' trademark — that might just be the case this season.
Pitt could well get its shot late in October when juggernaut Clemson comes to town. But until then, its focus has to be on the tasks in the immediate future, starting with Saturday's visit by the Western Michigan Broncos.
"I don't see that as a problem," Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said of his 2-0 team. "I think we have a mature football team. We won't overlook anybody."
Good thing, because Western Michigan is considered one of the top MAC teams.
Despite a Week 1 loss to the Michigan Wolverines, the Broncos — 1-1 after shutting out FCS member Illinois State last weekend — are certainly no non-conference pushovers.
"I think they had nine three-and-outs last weekend, which is about probably as good as a defense can get on any given Saturday afternoon," said Narduzzi of Western Michigan. "So it'll be a challenge. It isn't going to be easy."
After last week's trip to SEC country, where the Panthers took down Tennessee in 41-34 fashion, they're game for any challenge.
Western Michigan at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 18 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Pittsburgh -15
When Western Michigan Has the Ball
The Broncos — true to their name — like to run the ball. But given Narduzzi's penchant for putting together tough defenses at Pittsburgh, it won't be easy.
"(Expect) a tough football game, because … you know … that's what Narduzzi coaches," Broncos senior cornerback Therran Coleman, a transfer from Pitt, told the WMU team site. "Toughness is like one of his main keys that he hits every week when I was there, so I'm pretty sure it's still the same."
It's unlikely Western Michigan will put up a rushing number close to the 233 yards it damaged Illinois State with last week. Pitt held Tennessee to just 374 total yards last week, including 136 on the ground.
Cue sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby, who will be counted on to guide the Broncos to another 400-plus-yard outing — just as he did against Illinois State.
Eleby — touted as a talent with a bright future — went 15-of-21 for 174 yards and a touchdown, finding junior receiver Jaylen Hall for seven catches, 75 yards, and the score. Against Michigan in Week 1, Eleby held his own against the Wolverines, connecting on 20 of 37 passes for 191 yards and a TD.
But he can expect pressure from a Pitt defense that had five sacks against the Volunteers, including two from junior defensive lineman Habakkuk Baldonado.
When he does hand the ball off, Eleby's got a couple of capable options. Junior running back La'Darius Jefferson has 28 carries for 144 yards and three TDs. Last week, he cracked the 100-yard mark on 18 attempts with two scores. Sophomore Sean Tyler also got into the act against the Redbirds, gaining 78 yards with a touchdown on 15 carries.
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
"Kenny Pickett's got a nice arm," WMU's Coleman said of the Panthers' quarterback in the lead-up to this one.
He sure does, which is why Pitt can't be counted out of any affair on the schedule this season. The senior is not just the engine of the offense, he's also the heart of this team.
Through two games, Pickett is 51-of-73 for 557 yards and four touchdowns. Last week, he went 24-of-36 for 285 yards and two TDs against an SEC defense, which is never an easy task.
But the Broncos believe they boast a stout formidable defense of their own after shutting out Illinois State last Saturday. Yes, it was an FCS team, but WMU did so in spectacular fashion, allowing just 57 yards and only four first downs. The Broncos also recorded four sacks.
"We had to really focus on (tackling) and make sure we got it down," said Coleman of an aspect that hurt them against Michigan in Week 1. "That (Week 2) game was fun. It was a great job … our defensive line had a great game."
Another one against Pickett would be most welcome. But the Pitt QB is on a mission, helped by many weapons, including fellow senior Taysir Mack, sophomore Jordan Addison, and Florida transfer Lucas Krull — all key pass catchers. Pickett spread the ball out to nine different guys against Tennessee, highlighted by Addison's six catches for 64 yards and Mack's four grabs for 100 yards.
And Narduzzi feels Pittsburgh can run when it needs to do so. Sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda had 12 carries for 43 yards, junior Vincent Davis had 19 attempts for 33 yards, and Pickett himself gained 19 yards on 10 carries. The Panthers have seven rushing touchdowns in just two games but are averaging 3.7 yards per carry, so there's room for improvement.
Yeah, that win over Tennessee goes down as one of Pitt's best non-conference efforts in recent years and follows what was a 51-7 destruction of UMass that really didn't tell us anything about the Panthers.
It's all a boon and a confidence builder, especially since the head coach wasn't sold on last week's play being a particularly shining effort.
"It's nice to have missed execution and earn Ws at the same time," Narduzzi said. "That's what we were able to get. We had some poor execution. You live and learn from it. That'll be a focus this week."
If that translates to the field, it means a tough road to hoe for Western Michigan, no matter its standing among MAC and Group of 5 programs.
"Just effort, communication, and discipline," Coleman said. "As long as we take care of those three things, I think we'll be pretty good."
But it likely won't be enough for Tim Lester's team against a Pitt side — talented unlike few before it in recent years — that has its sights set on matching last year's 3-0 start to the season.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 40, Western Michigan 24
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