Hilltoppers can’t finish, fall to Louisville late

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

Matt Stahl

One week after a disappointing loss to Maine, and without starting quarterback Drew Eckels, WKU gave in-state Power 5 opponent Louisville a scare before squandering the lead in the fourth quarter and falling 20-17.

“That’s two weeks in a row that we let them get away from us,” WKU head coach Mike Sanford said after the game. “We as a team, and starting with me, we’ve got to find ways to put teams away.

After starting the game by forcing Louisville into a quick three-and-out, the Hilltopper offense couldn’t capitalize, as starting quarterback Steven Duncan tossed an interception to Cardinal linebacker C.J. Avery.

Louisville was unable to capitalize on the interception and punted to WKU, who was unable to move the ball and punted back to the Cardinals. Louisville quarterback Jawon Pass was picked off by defensive lineman DeAngelo Malone on the next drive. 

The Hilltoppers marched the ball the other way, anchored by several nice runs from senior running back D’Andre Ferby. Redshirt freshman Davis Shanley, who replaced Duncan at quarterback, finished off the drive with a 9-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Kyle Fourtenbary. It was the first touchdown of both of their careers to give WKU a 7-0 lead.

After the game, Shanley spoke of how it felt to play in extended action for the first time.

“It felt good, really jumping into the ocean now instead of just getting my feet wet,” Shanley said. “At the end of the day the stats and all the touchdowns, it doesn’t even matter because the only stat in the books is that we lost tonight.”

The next Louisville drive ended with quarterback Malik Cunningham failing to convert on fourth and 3. The Hilltoppers got the ball back and scored two plays later on a quarterback keeper by Shanley to make it 14-0 early in the second quarter.

Louisville was finally able to mount a drive at the end of the half. Cunningham appeared to have been picked off in the end zone by redshirt sophomore Devon Key, but the call was overturned after a replay review showed Key was out of bounds. The Cardinals kicked a field goal and the teams went into the halftime break with WKU leading 14-3.

WKU began the second half with the ball, but had to punt following a drop by sophomore receiver Jaquez Sloan that would have put the Hilltoppers in Louisville territory. After WKU surrendered the ball, the Cardinals went on a long drive, capped off with another field goal.

The Hilltoppers took the ball back and drove to the Louisville 1-yard line before Shanley was sacked for 4 and then 10 yards and a field goal attempt by Ryan Nuss was blocked. After a comedy of errors, the Cardinals recovered the loose ball at WKU’s 31.

The Cardinals then went on a short drive, with Cunningham taking the team to a fourth and 1 on the Hilltopper 1 before sophomore running back Dae Williams took it in for a touchdown that made the score 14-13 WKU.

WKU took the ball back and went on a drive from its own 14. The Hilltoppers marched the ball down the field in small chunks. The drive took 14 plays and was capped with a 35-yard field goal by Ryan Nuss to put WKU back up by four points.

Cunningham continued torching the Hilltoppers on Louisville’s next drive, rushing several times to keep the drive going and drawing a penalty from Hilltopper senior safety Drell Greene for a late hit out of bounds. The Cardinals finished the drive with another short touchdown run from Williams to take the lead 20-17.

After the game, Sanford spoke of the performance by Cunningham, who replaced Pass at quarterback.

“I think Malik Cunningham is the difference in the game for them,” Sanford said. “We were watching tape, we were certainly concerned about preparing for number three, made that very clear. He did a good job.”

The Hilltoppers went on a last-ditch drive that appeared promising, getting down to the Louisville 36 before Shanley took a sack on third down that knocked WKU out of field goal range. After a fourth down incompletion, Louisville took over.

Louisville couldn’t move the ball and surrendered the ball to the Hilltoppers with 16 seconds remaining.

A hook and lateral play got WKU down to the Louisville 34 and led to a 51-yard field goal attempt by Nuss that missed to give the Cardinals the 20-17 victory.

WKU will be back in action next week in Muncie, Indiana, when they take on Ball State. 

Sports reporter Matt Stahl can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @mattstahl97.