Hilltoppers to host Liberty for home opener, fall in week one at the University of Louisville

Western Kentucky University head coach Tyson Helton roams the sidelines at Cardinal Stadium on Sept. 12, 2020. 

Casey Warner & Nick Kieser

WKU (0-1) will kickoff its home opener against Liberty University in Houchens-Smith Stadium at 11 a.m. this Saturday. The Hilltoppers lost 35-21 at the University of Louisville to begin the 2020 campaign amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In 2019, the Eagles posted a 8-5 record while going 2-4 on the road. According to a tweet from Damian Sordelett from News Advance in Lynchburg, Virginia, head coach Hugh Freeze announced Monday that Malik Willis will start as quarterback Saturday. 

Willis, a redshirt junior transfer out of Auburn University, played in 15 games for the Tigers while tossing for 69 yards and one touchdown. 

Sordelett added on Twitter that Freeze said WKU’s senior defensive end DeAngelo Malone is a different dude. He’s an NFL guy. He’s a handful that can create some negative plays in a hurry. 

Kicking off the 2020 season on Sept. 12 in Cardinal Stadium with 11,179 fans in the stands, the Hilltoppers won the coin toss to start the game and deferred to the second half. 

The Hilltoppers struck first blood on the gridiron against Louisville following a mishandled punt by sophomore kicker Logan Lupo. 

Redshirt senior running-back Gaej Walker and the Hilltopper offense took advantage of the misjudged 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 quarterback 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 to tie the game. 

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.” 

WKU’s offense fired back with a deep ball thrown by graduate quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome to redshirt senior 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 the pigskin on the play and began their drive from the 6 yard line. 

After the turnover the Cardinals capped off a 10-play, 93-yard drive to pull ahead 14-7. Cunningham took it to the end zone with a 14-yard rush. 

Then Louisville added to the scoresheet after 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 following drive for the Hilltoppers resulted in a punt from senior punter John Haggerty with just over six minutes left in the first half. 

Louisville added salt to the wound with less than a minute left in the half, Cunningham tossed a two-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore 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. 

“He was okay,” Helton said of Pigrome’s week one performance. “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 second half with a five play drive that ended up with Haggerty booting the ball 49 yards downfield. 

Redshirt senior Omari Alexander responded with a blocked punt on Louisville’s following possession, giving the Hilltoppers great field position at the Louisville 5-yard line. 

WKU’s senior redshirt running back Malik Staples gave new life to the Hilltoppers scoring from the goalline to cut the differential to 28-14. 

Cunningham completed his third passing touchdown after a three play 85-yard drive. Redshirt sophomore receiver Dez Fitzpatrick punched back on the scoreboard to make it 35-14 Louisville. 

In an attempt to counter Louisville’s final score of the game, Pigrome went for a fourth down conversion in the third quarter with 5:58 to play. WKU’s new signal caller 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 … and say hey, what do we gotta get better at?” Helton said. 

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. 

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

The inability to shut down Louisville’s playmakers, in addition to not capitalizing on early big plays would plague WKU in this one. 

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 

Sports Editor Nick Kieser can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @KieserNick.