WKU aiming for marquee win against in-state rival Louisville in Nashville


Redshirt sophomore Steven Duncan throws a pass during Saturday’s game against Louisville. The Hilltoppers fell 20-17. 

Alec Jessie

Coming off its first win of the season, the WKU football team will look to make it two straight in a marquee non-conference matchup. The Hilltoppers (1-1, 1-0 C-USA) will travel to Nashville to square off with Power 5 opponent Louisville (1-1) on Saturday.

WKU notched its first road victory of the season last weekend, a contest that saw the Hilltoppers dispatch Conference USA foe Florida International 20-14 in Miami.

First-year head coach Tyson Helton said on Monday that his team’s biggest improvement from week one to week two was its ability to finish off the opponent.

“Finishing, to be honest with you,” Helton said. “We talk about it all the time, but my team wants to get to the last five minutes of the game. Good teams go win the game in the last five minutes. Our kids had the right mindset and embraced what we were trying to preach to them about get to the last five minutes and find a way to go win.”

Louisville is also coming off its first win of the season, a 42-0 shutout victory against Eastern Kentucky last weekend. The Cardinals’ only defeat this season was a lopsided 35-17 loss to No. 9 Notre Dame in Louisville’s home opener on Sept. 2.

Louisville leads the all-time series over the Hilltoppers, 20-12.

WKU and Louisville last met at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville on Sept. 15, 2018. The Hilltoppers led a majority of the game, but WKU surrendered its advantage with 5:01 remaining in the game after Dae Williams scored from close range for Louisville.

After WKU kicker Ryan Nuss missed a 51-yard field goal attempt that would’ve tied the game, the Cardinals escaped a tightly contested matchup with a 20-17 home victory.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Hilltoppers will look to continue their success on the ground. Redshirt junior Gaej Walker has back-to-back games of 100 yards or more rushing after registering 27 carries and an even 100 yards on the ground against FIU.

Even though WKU got its first win, offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis said on Tuesday that he was far from content with his coaching performance against the Panthers.

“Nowhere near good enough,” Ellis said. “I thought there were a lot of good things in the first half. I think we gotta do a better job as coaches in putting them in better situations in the second half. That’s two weeks in a row of that and that’s unacceptable from our standpoint. It starts with us.”

Helton and Ellis will also be looking for a bit more consistency in the passing game.

Redshirt junior Steven Duncan has tallied two passing touchdowns and one rushing score in the first two games this season, but he’s also thrown four interceptions. In order to take down an ACC foe, the signal caller will have to start by taking care of the ball.

Although Arkansas transfer Ty Storey did see the field for one snap against FIU, Ellis remains confident that Duncan gives WKU its best opportunity to succeed on offense.

“Right now, Steven Duncan gives us the best chance to go win football games,” Ellis said. “At the end of the day, we really have one football goal at this university and that’s to win.”

Redshirt junior receiver Jahcour Pearson said on Tuesday that the focus of the passing game against Louisville will be to capitalize on chunk-yardage plays.

“This Saturday, we are trying to make big plays in Nissan Stadium and trying to get the crowd excited,” Pearson said.

On the other side of the football, the Hilltoppers are coming off another dominant defensive performance. The WKU defense gave up only 66 passing yards and allowed a mere 3.3 yards per carry against FIU.

The Hilltoppers will face a much stiffer test on Saturday — Louisville has averaged 285.5 rushing yards per game and starting quarterback Jawon “Puma” Pass has thrown four touchdowns to just one interception this season.

Defensive coordinator Clayton White said on Wednesday that he’s well aware of the challenges the Cardinals will present on the ground.

“It’s always a challenge to stop the run,” White said. “Every team’s goal is to go out there and run the football. [Louisville] want to do it more than most teams. I think it’s going to come down to discipline and doing your job.”

Redshirt junior linebacker Malik Staples will have some extra motivation on Saturday, as the former three-star prospect transferred from Louisville to WKU in June.

After converting from running back to linebacker at Louisville, Staples appeared in 20 games and registered nine tackles in two seasons as a Cardinal.

The 225-pounder graduated during his time at Louisville and was therefore granted immediate eligibility at WKU. Staples has made the most of his early opportunities, tallying seven total tackles in just two games played as a Hilltopper.

Staples said on Wednesday that there are certain advantages to playing against some of his former Louisville teammates.

“I mean, slightly,” Staples said. “Just because I know a lot of tendencies. I know the guys real well and how they like to run. I know how Puma [Pass] likes to throw the ball. So, it’s gonna be a good game. I can’t wait to go out there and go hard.”

Kickoff for this year’s neutral-site contest, which will be played at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, is slated for 3 p.m. on Saturday. The game will be streamed live on Stadium.

WKU students with an active and valid student ID will be admitted into the game for free, according to a release.

Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.