Spread: Louisville -21
How to Watch / Listen: Kickoff at 7:30 ET on Fox Sports South and 790AM
Last Time: The Cards and Hilltoppers last met in 1998, when the Cards were a member of the Conference USA, and Western Kentucky a Division I-AA school.
With John L. Smith and Jack Harbaugh coaching the Cards and Hilltoppers, respectively, the Cards rolled to a 63-34 victory in Cardinal Stadium’s inaugural season. Leroy Collins tied a Louisville school record with five rushing touchdowns in that game (and had 154 yards on the ground). Led by then offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino, Chris Redman also threw for 474 yards and three touchdowns.
Louisville leads the all-time series 19-12.
The State of the WKU Hilltoppers
Fast forward 20 years later, and like Louisville, WKU has made a lot of moves. They won the I-AA national championship in 2002, then transitioned to FBS football in 2009. They had some growing pains during the transition (including an 0-12 season in 2009), but regained their footing once Willie Taggart became the head coach. Taggart’s run as head coach included WKU’s first ever bowl game as an FBS member, and a big win on the road against Kentucky.
After Taggart left in 2012, WKU hired Bobby Petrino to coach the team in 2013. He would coach one season at WKU before returning to Louisville, leaving then offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm to get promoted to head coach. They would enjoy their biggest success in program history, winning back-to-back Conference USA championships and even getting the Hilltoppers their first ever top-25 ranking in the FBS. Brohm would parlay that success into taking the head coaching job at Purdue, leaving WKU to hire current head coach Mike Sanford, Jr. in 2016.
Last season, WKU finished 6-7 with an appearance in the Cure Bowl. WKU enters tomorrow’s game with an 0-2 record, losing at Wisconsin and last weekend against FCS Maine. WKU is also in their 100th season of football, like Louisville.
Key Players: WR Lucky Jackson, S Devon Key
Western Kentucky has had some of the best receivers in Conference USA in recent years, ranging from Taywan Taylor to Nacarius Fant, even tight ends like Tyler Higbee and Jack Doyle.
Once again, WKU boasts an explosive receiver in Lucky Jackson. He can line up in multiple spots and create mismatches against a Louisville secondary still trying to figure out what they have. His top end speed and route running should give him a quality outing. Jackson had four catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s loss to Maine.
WKU also has a lot of reliable veterans in their linebacker group, particularly in Kentucky transfer Eli Brown and Ben Holt. But it’s sophomore safety Devon Key that has the most upside in the defense. Key had an early pick six against Maine last weekend, so if Louisville continues to struggle with their turnover margin, expect him to be a likely playmaker for the Toppers.
Louisville Defensive Line v. WKU Offensive Line
Both of these units are looking to regain their confidence, after disappointing starts to their 2018 campaign. Louisville only has two sacks so far this season and has been getting pushed back by offensive lines with capable rushing attacks. WKU gave up six sacks against Maine last weekend, and was harassed constantly by Wisconsin in the week prior.
For Louisville to have success on defense, they have to get pressure on the quarterback and force some mistakes. Louisville is currently sitting at -3 in the turnover margin, thanks in large part to the fact they’ve only forced one turnover (an early fumble recovery against Alabama) and the aforementioned two sacks so far. Forcing turnovers (and not committing as many on offense, as well) would help keep an underdog like WKU from building confidence, and spurring a possible upset against their in-state foe.
Also tying into this is who will start at quarterback for WKU. Starter Drew Eckels is listed as a game-time decision for Saturday’s game; if he can’t go, WKU will have to choose between backup Steven Duncan, true freshman Kevaris Thomas or Davis Shanley. Shanley played in their 34-3 loss at Wisconsin, completing 2-of-3 passes and had three carries for 31 yards. No matter who does, all three might help the offense, in the sense that they are more mobile than Eckels is. But their inexperience could lead to drastic mistakes on that side of the ball.
Running Back Identity
Both teams this weekend have a mutual dilemma in their running game. Louisville and WKU are still in the process of trying to find a hot hand at running back to roll with.
For WKU, look for Garland LaFrance and D’Andre Ferby to become the feature guys at that position. LaFrance had a 75-yard touchdown catch and run last week, and is already seeing the field a lot as a smaller, speedy true freshman. Ferby is a veteran power back that has played on WKU’s conference championship teams, scoring 11 touchdowns in their memorable 2015 season. Mike Sanford needs to find a consistent rotation that works with his offense, so that it can open up opportunities for Eckels to connect with his receivers and not get pressured consistently.
Louisville had some hot hands in last week’s game against Indiana State. Both Jeremy Smith and Colin Wilson ran for a combined 108 yards on 13 carries (about 8.31 yards per carry), so letting those two backs take most of the carries again seems more than ideal. Even though Puma is starting on Saturday, I’d also expect Malik Cunningham to see the field (at least in some package plays). Cunningham’s ability to scramble adds a new wrinkle to a Cards offense that is looking for someone to break through. I’d also like to see Hassan Hall and Javian Hawkins continue to get some carries as “change-of-pace” backs, ones that can go for a big play with their speed on the perimeter.
Louisville WRs v. WKU LBs & DBs
With the weather expected to be substantially better than it was last week, it’s an opportunity for Puma Pass to reset, and forget what’s happened in the first two weeks. Maine’s main formula for success last week was being able to hit deep passes on WKU’s secondary, and I’d expect Louisville to try and replicate that on Saturday.
It also sort of ties into what I mentioned about the running game. Louisville needs someone to break out at running back, so that they can use their backs to their strengths and parlay that into a strong play action. Anything that can help Louisville’s passing game (let alone getting the ball to their talented group of receivers) will go a long way to revitalizing the offense.