Spread: Louisville -9.5
How to Watch / Listen: 4 p.m. ET, Stadium (TV / Stream)
Down 14-0 to the Hilltoppers early in the second quarter, Louisville needed some heroics from quarterback Malik Cunningham and running back Dae Williams to stave off an in-state upset. Louisville trailed 14-6 entering the third quarter, but two fourth quarter touchdowns from Williams gave the Cardinals a 20-17 lead with 5:01 left. WKU’s final two drives of the game ended in a turnover on downs, and a missed game-tying 51-yard field goal as time expired. Louisville would escape with a 20-17 win at home, their only win against an FBS team in 2018.
Louisville leads the all-time series 20-12, winning the last ten games against the Hilltoppers.
Meet the 2019 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers:
When these two teams meet at Nissan Stadium on Saturday, Louisville will have gone 364 days without a win against an FBS opponent. But, Louisville was not the only team in the Bluegrass State with its woes. After falling from 6-7 in 2017 to 3-9 in 2018, WKU fired head coach Mike Sanford, Jr. after two seasons. Even two straight wins to close the 2018 season wasn’t enough for Sanford to keep his job, as a 1-9 start was too much to overcome (that 1-9 start included a loss to FCS Maine, where the Hilltoppers blew a 21-0 lead).
Tennessee offensive coordinator Tyson Helton, who held the same position at WKU during Jeff Brohm’s 2015 Conference USA title run, returned to Bowling Green to take the head coaching vacancy. In addition to his ’14-’15 stint at WKU, he also had a run as USC’s quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator, helping groom future New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold for the NFL.
But 2019 has been a rough go for Helton and the Hilltoppers. WKU again lost to an FCS team to open the season, dropping a 35-28 defeat to Central Arkansas in late August. WKU did rebound last week to take a 20-14 win over Florida International.
Key Offensive Players: RB Gaej Walker, WRs Lucky Jackson / Jahcour Pearson
Like Louisville, one of Western Kentucky’s biggest tasks in 2019 was figuring out how to better utilize their running game. The Hilltoppers were 104th in rushing last year with 136.8 rushing yards per game, and also lost a key contributor in D’Andre Ferby as he graduated.
While Joshua Samuel was the top returning runner from last year, Helton and his staff moved defensive back Gaej Walker to his recruited position at running back for 2019, and so far it’s paid off. Walker currently leads the team with 252 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and so far he’s practically been the only option in the running game. Only quarterback Steven Duncan has more than ten carries so far besides Walker (but keep in mind that in college football, sacks count as rush attempts).
Walker, at 6’0″ and 195 lbs., has good speed and gets to the second level very quickly, as you would expect from a guy who was capable of playing defensive back under the old staff. He has a similar build to Hassan Hall and EKU’s Daryl McCleskey, Jr., the latter whom U of L played last week.
WKU’s offense also needed to find a permanent starter at quarterback, as both Steven Duncan and Davis Shanley played substantially in 2018. Duncan won the starting job, and so far has upped his accuracy from 57.8% last year to 62.5% through two games in 2019. But he has also thrown two touchdowns to four interceptions, most of them occurring on downfield throws.
Helton’s offense has made use of the quick passing game often through screens and bootleg plays. Look for Lucky Jackson and Jahcour Pearson to be the biggest impact players in WKU’s passing game. Lucky Jackson is the team’s top returning receiver from last year, and WKU uses him in many different ways (jet sweeps, deep routes, you name it). Pearson is a frequent option for WKU in their quick passing game, one of many that Duncan will be able to get the ball to in space.
Key Defensive Players: DL DeAngelo Malone, DB Devon Key
DeAngelo Malone led WKU with six sacks in 2018, and already has 1.5 sacks in 2019. He’s the Toppers biggest threat on the defensive line with impressive athleticism at 6’4″, 230 lbs. Malone had his best game last year at Louisville, recording a season-high eight tackles and an interception against the Cardinals. Additionally, the Hilltoppers are coming off a strong showing against FIU; they only allowed one touchdown drive on offense, and held the Panthers to 5-of-18 passing for 66 yards along with 3.3 yards per carry.
WKU, however, hasn’t forced a turnover yet this season. Against a Louisville team that is -3 in turnover margin, the Hilltoppers could have a chance at getting their first takeaways of the season. Their safety duo in Devon Key and Ta’Corian Darden is the most likely group to get them. Key led the team in interceptions (three) last year, and he along with Darden were tied for third on the team in tackles (71) in 2018.
One More Important Thing to Know:
Against all Kentucky teams that are FBS or FCS, Louisville is 72-45-1 all-time. Louisville has not lost to a team from the Bluegrass State not named Kentucky since 1985.
Louisville has played almost all teams from its own state in recent years, except for one: Morehead State. The Cardinals and the Eagles have not played each other in football since 1957.
Can Louisville’s Running Game Continue to be Great?
In their last five games, Louisville has averaged 250.8 rushing yards per game, which is in large part due to their offensive line. Mekhi Becton and Caleb Chandler were both named All-ACC offensive linemen by PFF for week two, with Becton also taking All-American honors for that week as well.
Advanced stats also back up Louisville’s dominant display on the ground. The Cards rank 30th in opportunity rate according to Footballoutsiders.com, which is the percentage of carries that gain at least four yards. They are also sixth in passing down line yards per carry, which is a great trend to have for a run-heavy scheme. Being top ten in that category means even if Louisville gets behind on schedule (ex: has a second-and-long, third-and-medium or third-and-long play), their running game can be relied upon to get them back into a manageable situation.
Factor in Louisville’s solid play from its offensive line, as well as big runs by both Javian Hawkins and Hassan Hall, and it explains why the Cardinals have been a dominant running team during that stretch. They will need to be that against a WKU defense that is currently allowing 85.5 rushing yards per game, and just had DeAngelo Malone as an All-Conference USA defensive linemen last week. Becton v. Malone will be the matchup to watch on the line, as the Cards look to continue their hot streak with running the ball.
Will Jawon Pass Start the Game Hot?
Based on what we’ve seen from the first two games, the best version of Louisville’s offense will depend on which Jawon Pass shows up. In the first half of the Notre Dame game, and second half of the EKU game, Louisville’s offense was maintaining drives when they not only ran the ball well, but also had a solid passing game to keep defenses off-balance.
But in the first half of the EKU game, and in the second half against Notre Dame, the Cardinals stalled on multiple drives when Pass fell in a slump throwing the ball. When he goes through slumps like that, it also allows opposing defenses to stack the box and go all out to stop the run.
Louisville’s offense will need Jawon Pass to get into a rhythm early and make WKU account for their passing game. If the Cardinals can get their running game going, it would help Pass get settled in through play-action and RPOs. Pass had a lot of success with those last week against EKU, and that can be a good base for him to be able to hit throws and get in a groove.
How Will WKU’s Passing Game Handle Louisville Front Seven?
The two most compelling matchups on the field will be when WKU has the ball.
One is the WKU wide receiver / tight end corps versus Louisville’s secondary, where WKU could be evenly matched. The Hilltoppers have a solid duo in Lucky Jackson and Jahcour Pearson, and Kyle Fourtenbary is another excellent receiver at Steven Duncan’s disposal. Louisville’s secondary will get a decent test against an underrated group before starting conference play next week.
The next is WKU’s offensive line versus Louisville’s front seven, which is the more pivotal matchup. WKU’s offensive line has only allowed one sack so far, and Louisville’s eight sacks this season is currently tied for ninth in the FBS. If Louisville’s defense can generate pressure, it will force Duncan to possibly make throws into coverage, giving defenders a chance to come out of it with takeaways.
Turnovers will be a huge factor to watch here, as both Louisville and WKU are among the worst in the FBS in margin. Louisville sits at a -3 entering Saturday’s game, while WKU is at -4.
But WKU’s quick passing and reliance on screen plays could help offset the pressure Louisville’s defense can bring. If the ball comes out of Duncan’s hands quickly, WKU has reliable playmakers in Jackson and Pearson that can get chunks of yardage. Duncan also has the mobility to be able to get yards himself on scrambles, which worked out well for Notre Dame’s Ian Book on Labor Day against the Cardinals.