The WKU football team (1-2, 1-0 C-USA) couldn’t pick up its second win of the 2019 season against Louisville (2-1, 0-0 ACC) on Saturday afternoon, as the Cardinals defeated the Hilltoppers in convincing 38-21 fashion in Nissan Stadium in Nashville.
First-year head coach Tyson Helton said he thought Louisville — which held WKU to 288 total yards on the day — was a “much-improved football team” from a year ago.
“As a coach, you’re gonna always try to put your team in the best position to go out there and execute,” Helton said postgame. “Sometimes they played good defense, sometimes we didn’t execute. That’s football. But we’ll go back and try to continue to get better. You know, I tell the team every day — let’s just get better every single day, keep battling and good things will happen.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Steven Duncan threw for 245 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on 25-of-47 passing. Redshirt junior Gaej Walker rushed for 41 yards on 14 carries for WKU, but couldn’t manage to tally his third straight 100-yard game.
Redshirt sophomore Malik Cunningham started at quarterback in place of injured starter Jawon “Puma” Pass for Louisville.
Cunningham stepped up, completing 8-of-13 passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Cunningham was also a threat on the ground, tallying 46 yards on 16 attempts for the Cardinals.
Freshman Evan Conley replaced Cunningham in the third quarter and filled in admirably, passing for 86 yards and a touchdown on 2-of-3 passing.
The Hilltopper offense won the opening coin toss and elected to receive.
WKU started its opening drive at its own 22. Duncan converted a third-and-6 play at the 26-yard line with a completed pass to Quin Jernighan, but the Hilltoppers failed to convert a third-and-4 at their own 43 and were forced to punt the ball away to the Cardinals.
Louisville took the field for its opening drive on its 18-yard line. After two quick rushes for a combined six yards, the Cardinals committed a false start penalty on a third-and-4 play. Backed up to the 19-yard line after the flag, Cunningham was sacked by Juwuan Jones for a loss of four yards on third down and the Cardinals were forced to punt.
WKU started its second drive at its own 46. Walker’s first carry went for six yards, but the Hilltoppers committed their own false start on second-and-4. After Duncan threw an incomplete pass on second down and was sacked for a loss of nine yards on third down, the Hilltoppers went three-and-out and punted back to the Cardinals.
Louisville’s second drive started at its 42-yard line. Cunningham rushed for four yards on first down, but lost two of those yards on second down. WKU jumped offside on third down, making it easy for the Cardinals to pick up the first. Louisville continued driving from there, with Cunningham rushing and passing almost at will on the WKU defense.
The Cardinals stayed away from third down after entering WKU territory, eventually taking a 7-0 lead on a 9-yard pass from Cunningham to Tutu Atwell at the 4:18 mark.
WKU started its third drive at its own 25 after the kickoff. Duncan converted a third-and-4 play at the 31-yard line to Jahcour Pearson, but the drive stalled after that. Duncan completed a pass to Lucky Jackson for no gain, Walker rushed for a loss of one and Duncan threw another incompletion before the Hilltoppers punted yet again.
Louisville started its third drive on its 17. Cunningham had the Cardinals driving again before he was interrupted by the first quarter expiring. Louisville picked up right where it left off as the second quarter began — the Cardinals went for it on fourth-and-2 at its 46-yard line and converted on a 3-yard rush by Hassan Hall.
The Cardinals scored just two plays later, as Cunningham unleashed a 46-yard touchdown on a deep pass to Atwell and put Louisville up 14-0 at the 12:04 mark.
WKU answered back in a big way on its ensuing drive, which started at its own 18-yard line. Duncan completed a pass to Jacquez Sloan on first-and-10 before Joshua Simon snagged a pass on second-and-5 and took it 77 yards to the house for a touchdown.
The Hilltoppers traveled 82 yards in two plays and moved to 14-7 at the 11:12 mark.
Louisville resumed play at its own 25-yard line. The Cardinals ran all over the WKU defense, picking up large chunks of yardage almost at will. Javian Hawkins finished the drive off with a 20-yard scamper that put Louisville up 21-7 with 8:08 left to play in the first half.
WKU returned the ensuing kickoff to its own 19-yard line, but the Hilltoppers didn’t move much from that spot — WKU punted the ball back to Louisville, who resumed play at its own 26 after a 63-yard punt from John Haggerty was returned 12 yards.
The Cardinals drove down into WKU territory, but Cunningham was tackled for a loss of one on a third-and-12 play at the WKU 24-yard line. Louisville was called for holding, but Helton declined the penalty and allowed Blanton Creque to try a 43-yard attempt.
Creque’s kick was good, putting Louisville up 24-7 with 1:23 left to play.
The Hilltoppers started at their own 22-yard line and seemed content to run the clock out prior to halftime, but Louisville had other plans. Duncan rushed for one yard to the WKU 29 on a third-and-4 play, but fumbled. Outside linebacker Rodjay Burns picked up the ball and scored from 30 yards out to put the Cardinals up 31-7 with :47 left to play.
At the break, WKU had rushed nine times for just six yards.
Louisville received the ball to open the third quarter and started on its own 27-yard line. But the Cardinals soon lost the football, committing a turnover on a second-and-7 play where Atwell rushed for a loss of two, fumbled and Devon Key recovered for WKU.
The Cardinals challenged, but the ruling was upheld and WKU took over at the Louisville 36-yard line. The Hilltoppers chipped away at the Cardinal defense, converting a fourth-and-1 play at the Louisville 27-yard line.
WKU kept the ball rolling and eventually cashed in on the Louisville turnover, as Duncan threw an 8-yard touchdown to Pearson that pulled WKU within 17 points at 31-14.
The Cardinals couldn’t mount much of a response on their second drive of the half, which started at their own 25. Louisville maintained possession for 2:43 of clock time, but collected only 13 yards on six plays and punted the ball back to WKU.
The Hilltoppers started their next drive at their own 26. WKU got some help early in the drive, as Jackson drew a defensive pass interference penalty on a second-and-5 play at the WKU 31. But WKU couldn’t capitalize, eventually punting the ball away to the Cardinals, who regained possession at their own 21-yard line.
Cunningham had Louisville poised to begin driving down the field once again, but Cunningham was sacked by Jeremy Darvin and forced to leave the field after his helmet came off. Conley checked in on third-and-7 for the Cardinals, threw an incomplete pass and Louisville punted back to WKU, who took over at their 35.
WKU was moving the ball effectively on its subsequent drive, appearing to convert its second third down before Jackson fumbled the football at the Louisville 38-yard line.
Conley led the Cardinals onto the field after the fumble and uncorked a 62-yard passing touchdown to Atwell that put the Cardinals up 38-14 with 1:26 left to play in the third.
WKU took over at its own 32 and maintained possession into the fourth quarter. The Hilltoppers put together a nine-play drive that went for 68 yards, used 3:28 of clock time and eventually ended on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Duncan to Kyle Fourtenbary.
WKU then trailed Louisville with 12:50 left in the contest, 38-21.
Freshman kicker Cory Munson came up big for the Hilltoppers on the ensuing kickoff, striking a surprise onside kick that WKU managed to recover at the Louisville 49.
The Hilltoppers used 2:19 of clock time on the extra possession, but gained just six yards on six plays. WKU went for it on fourth-and-15 at the Louisville 43, but Duncan couldn’t connect with Jernighan and the Hilltoppers turned it over on downs.
The Cardinals chewed more time off the clock, but Louisville also turned the ball over on downs after they went for it on a fourth-and-2 play at the WKU 49 and couldn’t convert.
WKU took over at its own 48 and drove all the way to the Louisville 8, but the Hilltoppers couldn’t translate the red zone trip into any points. Duncan hit Jackson in the endzone on a fourth-and-3 play, but the receiver couldn’t manage to complete the catch.
Louisville regained possession at its own 8-yard line, but the Cardinals were content to chew as much clock as possible and punted the ball back to WKU with 3:21 left to play.
WKU gained no yardage on its next four plays, which were all incomplete passes by Duncan. Louisville got the ball back at the WKU 39 after a turnover on downs.
The Cardinals looked like they might strike one last time after reaching the WKU 8. But the clock expired before they could score again, signaling a 17-point win for Louisville.
Following the loss, WKU will be inactive next weekend.
The Hilltoppers will rest up during the first of their two scheduled bye weeks in 2019, next taking the field against Alabama-Birmingham on Sept. 28 at 6 p.m. in Houchens-Smith Stadium.