Hilltoppers come up short

Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton speaks to quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome (1) at Cardinal Stadium on Sept. 12, 2020.

Casey Warner

On a dreary, late summer night college football made its debut in the Bluegrass State amid the coronavirus pandemic. As rain fell to start the game, the crowd appeared thin at first but ended up drawing 11,179 as the Hilltoppers and Cardinals were set to begin the 2020 season.

Kicking off the 2020 season in Cardinal Stadium the Hilltoppers won the coin toss to start the game and deferred to the second half.

An opening drive holding penalty pinned the Cardinals at their own 15 yard line after a touchback to start the game. Louisville attempted a punt to close the end of their first drive. Sophomore kicker Logan Lupo dropped the pigskin resulting in the Hilltopper defense hopping on the ball, almost scoring on the play. 

Redshirt senior running back Gaej Walker and the Hilltopper offense took advantage of the mishandled punt and scored from the 1 yard line. 

Following the early score for the Hilltoppers, the Cardinals fired back with a 63 yard gain. Redshirt junior Micale Cunningham completed a pass to sophomore receiver Braden Smith which was then followed up by a 28 yard score through the air caught by graduate tight end Ean Pfiefer.

Head Coach Tyson Helton elaborated on how crucial the focus was not to give up big plays.

“That was a goal for us to try and not give up those big plays,” Helton said. “They still found them and that was the story.”

Graduate quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome fired a deep ball to Jahcour Pearson with under five minutes to play in the first quarter. Pearson fumbled the ball inside the Louisville 20 yard line. The Cardinals recovered on the play and began their drive from the 6 yard line.

The first quarter ended with Pigrome tossing for 61 yards and Pearson with 50 receiving yards opposed to Cunningham’s 181 passing yards and one passing touchdown. 

The Cardinals opened the second quarter with a 14 yard rushing touchdown from Cunningham. The rush capped off an impressive 10-play, 93-yard drive from the Cardinals which started at their own seven-yard line. 

Louisville capped off a 7-play, 65-yard drive to take a two touchdown lead 21-7 midway through the second quarter after a 19-yard run by redshirt sophomore Javian Hawkins. The Hilltoppers went back on offense after defending the backfield for roughly three minutes. 

Pigrome picked up a 25 yard gain on a rushing play to convert a three down play with about eight minutes left in the half. Ultimately the drive came up short and the Hilltoppers were forced to punt with just over six minutes left in the first half.

Louisville’s junior running back Haasan Hall rushed for 41 yards to get the Cardinals in scoring position at the 18 yard line with under three minutes to play in the half.

With just under a minute left in the half, Cunningham tossed a two yard touchdown pass to Marshon Ford to put Lousiville up by a commanding three touchdowns and 28-7 just before halftime.

At the half, the Cardinals had 229 passing yards and 108 rushing yards. The Hilltoppers had the lone score from Walker in the first quarter.

“Offensively…we didn’t do our part,” Helton said. “We didn’t really get much going here and there.”

In the first half, WKU’s defense was no match for Louisville’s dynamic passing game. Cunningham torched the Hilltoppers going 13 of 21 through the air. Smith ended up with 114 yards receiving.

In his Hilltopper debut, Pigrome could not get anything going through the air totaling 70 yards passing, going four of eight on passing attempts.

“He was okay,” Helton said. “He had a tough opponent that he had to go against, and we all knew that. I thought he kept his composure for the most part.”

Senior defensive end DeAngelo Malone was the standout on defense for WKU grabbing a sack, one-and-a-half tackles for loss, and four total tackles.

The Hilltoppers opened up the third quarter with a five play drive and senior punter John Haggerty booting the ball 49 yards downfield. 

Omari Alexander then responded with a blocked punt on Louisville’s following possession, giving the Hilltoppers great field position at the Louisville 5 yard line. Senior redshirt Malik Staples pounded in a goalline carry to give WKU new life and their second score of the game making it a 28-14 contest. 

On the following drive, the Cardinals continued to pour on the offensive power with a three-play, 85-yard drive in 1:25. Cunningham completed his third passing touchdown of the game to redshirt sophomore receiver Dez Fitzpatrick punching back on the scoreboard to make it 35-14. 

WKU went for a fourth down conversion in the third quarter with 5:58 to play. Pigrome was sacked on the fourth and eleven down, Louisville held the Hilltoppers and began on their drive with 5:53 to go in the third quarter. 

Alexander picked up an interception with 4:10 left to go in the third, but WKU could not capitalize on the opportunity, punting it away after another three and out. 

“It’s like I told the team. We all gotta do a self-evaluation tonight,” Helton said. “…and say hey, what do we gotta get better at?”

At the end of the third quarter, the Hilltoppers started to make a few more gains on the field. Pigrome closed out three quarters of play with 117 throwing yards and 47 yards alone in the second to last 15 minutes of play.

Beginning the final quarter of play the Hilltoppers continued their drive from the Louisville 38 yard line. After a few short gains and a first down to put WKU inside the redzone, the offense could not come away with a score, turning the ball over on downs.

As the fourth quarter progressed the Cardinals and the Hilltoppers traded possessions two more times going under the 10 minute mark. The game slowed down significantly at this point with each team running the ball almost every play.

With 5:40 left in the game, Pigrome found junior receiver Mitchell Tinsley in the endzone to provide energy cutting the deficit to 35-21.

The Hilltoppers came up short in the season opener at Louisville falling 35-21 in Cardinal Stadium. 

WKU will host Liberty University Sept. 19 in Houchens-Smith Stadium for the home opener.

Football beat reporter Casey Warner can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thecaseywarner.