Takeaways from Western Michigan | Yarnell, Abanikanda impressive, kicker position needs to be reassessed

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

Ever since Western Michigan came to Acrisure Stadium last season and stunned Pitt, the Panthers have been determined to use the loss as motivation. Following the defeat, they went on a tear, dropping just one game in ACC play before ultimately capturing the conference championship.

For Pitt this season, traveling to Kalamazoo to take on the Broncos was a game the Panthers had circled on their calendar. Pitt’s defense was out for revenge, and they got it, leading the Panthers to a 34-13 victory.

Here are my takeaways.

Can’t continue to settle for three

Due to injuries plaguing Pitt’s quarterback room, first-year Nate Yarnell was forced into action against the Broncos and delivered an impressive performance.

Despite a clear lack of confidence from the coaching staff, especially in the first half, Yarnell completed five of his seven passes in the first half for 108 yards, including two perfect deep balls to senior wide receiver Jared Wayne. Yarnell put the Panthers in great position to score, but they couldn’t finish drives due to predictable play-calling.

Pitt settled for three field goal attempts in the first half when it had the chance to go up big. On the road, you have to go for the killshot early and can’t allow teams to hang around. The Panthers cleaned this up later in the game, scoring three touchdowns on their final three drives, but the game could’ve been out of reach much earlier. 

On their first drive, the Panthers ran the ball three straight times before settling for a field goal. Their conservatism was understandable considering Yarnell hasn’t started a game since he was in high school back in 2019. It was necessary to ease him into the game. 

But at some point you have to trust your quarterback to make plays, especially when he showed throughout the game that he was capable.

Yarnell earned a start next week

Pitt couldn’t have asked for a better performance from its third-string quarterback. 

Yarnell showed poise and made timely throws, finishing 9-12 with 179 yards and one touchdown. It’s tough for any quarterback to play on the road, but the fact that it was the first action of Yarnell’s college career makes it all the more impressive.

Yarnell was very limited against the Broncos, but next week’s game against Rhode Island could serve as an opportunity to give the young quarterback more experience. Pitt senior quarterback Kedon Slovis was available for Saturday’s game despite sustaining a concussion last week, but the Panthers opted to give him the day off.

It doesn’t make much sense to throw Slovis back into action and risk injury before Georgia Tech comes to town the following week. Nobody knows what Narduzzi will do, but it feels like the perfect storm to reward Yarnell with another start.

Defense pitches a complete performance

The Panthers coaching staff asked a lot of their defense, considering how little they could rely on the injury-riddled offense. 

To say they delivered would be an understatement. 

Pitt was absolutely lights-out on the defensive side of the ball, holding Western Michigan to just 180 yards of total offense. The Panthers first touchdown of the game came on an 11-yard interception return from senior cornerback Marquis Williams. That would set the tone for the rest of the night.

Pitt senior safety Erick Hallett picked off Western Michigan first-year quarterback Jack Salopek to open the second half. On the very next Broncon drive, Hallett picked off Salopek again just as they were threatening to score with the ball in the red zone. 

The Panthers held Western Michigan to just 1.7 yards per rush and -1 yards of total offense in the fourth quarter.

Pitt has now given up just 16 points over its last six quarters of football. Expect more performances like this as the season goes on. 

Pitt needs to revisit kicking competition

After missing two field goal attempts last week against Tennessee, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi stayed loyal to sophomore kicker Ben Sauls. 

“You guys want to bail on him? I’m not,” Narduzzi said

While converting on his first two field goal attempts, Sauls missed a 27-yard field goal before half that would have put Pitt up two scores. 

Sauls is now 5-8 on field goal attempts this season through three games. Pitt junior kicker Sam Scarton was an All-ACC kicker last season and missed just four field goal attempts in 14 games.  

It’ll be interesting to see if the Panthers reopen their kicking competition and give Scarton another shot to win the job. As Pitt heads into ACC play, they can’t afford inconsistency in the kicking game because it can swing games, as it did against Tennessee.

Narduzzi will likely stick with Sauls, but on paper, Scarton is the better option.

Abanikanda as advertised

Pitt junior running back Izzy Abanikanda bruised his way to 133 yards and a score against a weary Broncos defense. This followed his performance last week against Tennessee, where he carried the ball 25 times for 154 yards and a score. 

Abanikanda is proving to be dependable and somebody the Panthers can lean on. He’s been a workhorse, carrying the ball a combined 56 times over the course of the past two weeks. His 31 carries against the Broncos were the most by a Pitt player in one game since James Conner carried the ball 38 times against Duke in 2014.

Abanikanda relentlessly chipped away for a few yards at a time throughout the night, exhausting the Broncos defensive line. Taking advantage of their weakened state, he proceeded to gash them for some big gains in the second half. Both he and the Pitt offensive line found success in wearing out Western Michigan. 

During training camp, Abanikanda said Pitt’s running back group wanted to show they could bring back the style of past Panther teams and run the ball effectively. 

He’s certainly shown that these past few weeks.