KALAMAZOO, Mich. – Pitt junior running back Israel Abanikanda carried the ball 31 times for 131 yards and a touchdown to lead the No. 23 Panthers to a 34-13 victory over Western Michigan on Saturday.
Pitt (2-1) was without its top two quarterbacks for the nonconference contest, but third-string signal caller Nate Yarnell was efficient under center, going 9-for-12 passing for 179 yards and a touchdown.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said Yarnell began the week as the team’s fourth-string quarterback before earning start.
“He’s so calm in the huddle and I thought he looked comfortable out there the whole time,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t think he was nervous, not one bit. Not even close, which was shocking, because I was damn nervous.”
Western Michigan (1-2) had its opportunities, with a 31-yard double pass from receiver Anthony Sambucci to receiver A.J. Abbott for a touchdown that cut Pitt’s lead to 20-13 heading into the fourth quarter.
Pitt responded on its next drive when Yarnell found sophomore receiver Konata Mumpfield for a 6-yard touchdown reception to give the Panthers a two-score cushion. Redshirt junior running back Daniel Carter would ice the game with 3:03 to play in the fourth quarter when he plunged in for a 4-yard touchdown run.
The Broncos kept out of the endzone thanks to an aggressive Pitt secondary that finished the game with three interceptions, one returned for a score by redshirt senior cornerback Marquis Williams and two by redshirt senior safety Erick Harlett II.
Harlett’s second interception came in the endzone as Western Michigan was threatening to tie the game deep in Panther territory late in the third quarter.
“I was trying to get the coverage called out to my cornerback, we were on the side where the Pitt fans were and it was kind of loud,” Harlett said. “Then shoot, I just made a play.”
Western Michigan freshman kicker Palmer Domschke helped keep the game competitive by connecting on field goals of 32 and 40 yards to trim the Panthers’ halftime lead to 13-6.
Pitt dominated time of possession in the game, possessing the ball 38 minutes and 36 seconds compared to 21:24 for Western Michigan.
“You could tell by the first drive, they were going to eat the clock,” Western Michigan coach Tim Lester said. “I think we had three plays in the first quarter. It was going to be a premium on the plays we had. And you can’t turn the ball over. They turned it over three times last year, and we beat them. And we turned it over three times this year, and they beat us.”
Along with Abanikanda, Pitt was led offensively by senior receiver Jared Wayne with three receptions for 94 yards, while senior running back Vincent Davis added 11 carries for 83 yards.
Pitt: USC transfer quarterback Kedon Slovis did not play after suffering an injury in the Panthers’ 34-27 overtime loss to Tennessee. His primary backup, redshirt senior Nick Patti, also sat out against the Broncos after injuring his ankle in the second half against the Vols.
Western Michigan: Western Michigan was without starting defensive end Marshawn Kneeland (lower leg) and starting cornerback DaShon Bussell (knee).
Pittsburgh: The Panthers came into Kalamazoo with revenge on their mind. In the first meeting between the schools last season, Western Michigan pulled off a 44-41win, essentially spoiling Pitt’s chances of making the College Football Playoff.
Western Michigan: The Broncos kept the game close against a ranked opponent until the final minutes of the contest, but redshirt junior quarterback Jack Salopek struggled in his third career start, throwing three costly interceptions while finishing 6 of 18 passing for 99 yards.
Pitt: The Panthers couldn’t afford a loss to a Group of Five opponent if they wanted to remain in the Top 25. Even playing with a third-string quarterback, they earned a comfortable margin of victory.