Flames torch the Hilltoppers in home opener

WKU Senior lineman Deangelo Malone (10) attempts to tackle Liberty Junior Malik Willis (7) during the WKU home opener in Houchens-Smith Stadium on September 19, 2020. The WKU Hilltoppers lost to the Liberty Flames 30-24.

Kaden Gaylord

Football has returned on the Hill and 4,276 fans came out to witness the affair between the Hilltoppers (0-2) and Liberty University Flames (1-0). 

 The last time the two programs met was 24 years ago on Oct. 19, 1996, with a Flames victory and this contest ended the same with Liberty winning 30-24.  

“Obviously [it’s] disappointing to come up short. Felt like we were always lagging behind,” head coach Tyson Helton said. “ A lot of things we have to fix, got to get better at and we’ll keep pushing on.” 

Graduate transfer quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome made his home debut at the 14:53 minute mark of the first quarter. WKU got off to a slow start, finishing their first drive with a total of minus seven yards. 

Redshirt junior quarterback Malik Willis debuted as the Flames capitalized on the early field advantage by scoring in five plays highlighted by a 32 yard back shoulder throw setting them up at the six yard line. Willis ran it in two plays later giving Liberty the early lead. 

Liberty kept the pressure applied as they drove WKU to another unproductive drive, getting the ball back and driving down the field like the first drive. The Hilltopper defense stepped up in the red zone, holding the Flames to a field goal, extending their lead 10-0. 

WKU found the light on its third drive where Pigrome had his first positive completion for 16 yards to redshirt senior receiver, Jahcour Pearson, eventually getting the ball down to the Liberty 25 yard line, setting up a 43 yard field goal for redshirt sophomore kicker Brayden Narveson

A poor kickoff from Cory Munson went out of bounds to set up the Liberty offense at the 40 yard line as they kept the attack on WKU’s defense. A pass interference call kept the Flames offense on the field, setting them up on WKU’s 18 yard line. Willis would go on to score for the second time with another four yard rush to make the score 17-3. 

Facing a third and six from their own 13 yard line, Pigrome threw the ball to junior receiver Mitchell Tinsley for a 23 yard gain that got the offense rolling.

Redshirt senior Gaej Walker continued the momentum with a 13 yard run followed by a face mask penalty that set them up at the Liberty 29 yard line. Three completions followed as Pigrome hit Tinsley in the corner of the endzone for WKU’s first touchdown of the game. 

The defense stepped up big as they prevented the Flames for the first time late in the second quarter with a missed field goal from redshirt senior kicker Alex Barbir. Ultimately ending the half with Liberty In the lead 17-10. 

WKU had 97 of their 135 total yards, six of their nine first downs, and all 10 of their points of the half in the second quarter. Pigrome finished the half 8-12 passing with 77 yards and a touchdown with 27 rushing yards.   

The Hilltopper defense started the second half, forcing the Flames to punt the ball for the first time. Pigrome started his first drive of the half on fire. He completed a 17 yard completion to Tinsley followed by a 21 yard rush. 

Pigrome capped off the opening drive, tossing his second touchdown of the day to a wide-open redshirt freshman Dalvin Smith. The tight end scored with 10:56 remaining in the third quarter, tying the game at 17. 

Liberty got the ball and continued to drive on WKU’s defense but was stopped on a fourth and three on WKU’s 17-yard line.  

WKU couldn’t capitalize on the turnover, giving the ball back to Liberty who scored on a four play, 29 yard run by sophomore running back Shedro Louis putting Liberty back in front 24-17. 

“They were able to sustain drives, make long drives and make big plays in the rushing game so we’ll go back to the drawing board and try to get it fixed,” Helton said. 

Pigrome and the Hilltoppers offense went three and out with the graduate fumbling the ball on the first down of the drive. 

With the momentum in the Flames favor, Willis continued to do what he did all day, scoring his third rushing touchdown of the day, this time from 18 yards but they missed the extra point try. 

With 6:45 left on the clock, WKU took 3:41 off the clock with a nine play drive, ending in a 36-yard touchdown throw by Pigrome to junior receiver Craig Burt Jr to bring them within a touchdown with 3:04 left on the clock. 

Liberty iced the game with a first down run by Willis with 1:32 left on the clock. 

Pigrome finished 18-25 with 193 yards and 3 touchdowns with 62 yards on the ground. Tinsley had 6 receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown. Liberty finished with 487 total yards, 354 on the ground. 

The Hilltoppers will now enter into their bye week. The next time WKU steps onto the field will be on Oct. 3 at Middle Tennessee State University. 

Sports Reporter Kaden Gaylord can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Kaden on Twitter at @_KLG3.