Kickoff: 8:00 p.m. Saturday, ACC Network
Spread: Louisville -12, O/U 58.0 (Bovada)
A balanced offensive effort (209 passing, 206 rushing) was the key for Louisville, as they scored 31 first half points en route to a 38-21 win over WKU. The Cardinals were led by three receiving touchdowns from Tutu Atwell, as well as a fumble return touchdown by linebacker Rodjay Burns. They also held WKU to 43 rushing yards (1.9 yards per carry), the lowest allowed by Louisville’s defense last season.
Louisville leads the all-time series 21-12. The Cardinals have won the last 11 games in the series, dating back to 1982.
Synopsis: Western Kentucky (2020)
After a rocky 1-2 start following their loss to Louisville, WKU rebounded to win eight of its final ten games. WKU’s most notable wins in that span included C-USA West Division champion UAB, bowl teams Charlotte and Southern Miss, a 45-19 blowout road win at Arkansas, and a bowl victory over Western Michigan.
The catalyst for WKU’s 9-4 season was their defense, which led C-USA in scoring (20.1 PPG), second in total defense (335.5 YPG) and third down conversions (29.7%). Only twice in WKU’s nine wins did they allow over 20 points (conversely, all four of WKU’s losses in 2019 saw their opponents score at least 26 points).
Last season’s turnaround also came as a result of graduate transfer Ty Storey taking over as the starting quarterback. While Storey didn’t scorch the earth as WKU’s QB, he was top five nationally in accuracy (70% completion) and held a 2:1 TD:INT ratio (14 touchdowns, seven interceptions).
WKU has an experienced roster, with 18 returning starters (7 offense, 9 defense, kicker and punter) and is projected by Athlon to be the C-USA East Division champion.
Offensive Players to Know: QB Ty Pigrome, RB Gaej Walker, OG Jordan Meredith
With Storey departing, and Steven Duncan transferring to FCS Tarleton State in the spring, WKU faced a battle at the position with Davis Shanley (who played the majority of the game in Louisville’s 2018 battle against the Hilltoppers), Kevaris Thomas (highest rated prospect to ever commit to WKU), and graduate transfer Ty Pigrome. Other than depth chart shenanigans taking place this week (yep, it’s officially college football season), Pigrome was tabbed as the starter for game one against the Cardinals.
Like Storey, Pigrome comes from a Power Five background, having played in 34 games at Maryland (including the Terps’ wins against Texas in 2017 and 2018). The grad transfer had 2,500 total yards (1777 passing, 630 rushing), eight rushing touchdowns, and a 9:10 TD-to-INT ratio in his Terrapin career, making seven starts in the process. Pigrome is a playmaker as a runner, and while he struggled with some accuracy issues (career 56.7% completion), he has shown an ability to hit deep throws over his career. Ty Storey had similar numbers to Pigrome in his previous stop and Helton has mentored solid quarterbacks before (including Storey himself), so Pigrome could see substantial growth with an offseason under him.
Having a 1,200-yard rusher in the offense will also help Pigrome get accommodated. Gaej Walker returns as the starting running back, and he’ll be in the mix for All-Conference USA First Team throughout the season. Unless Helton decides to use the backups on the roster, you’ll likely see Walker return as a three-down back. It will help Walker that Pigrome is a scrambler himself, as that could open up opportunities for option plays, as well as keep him from reaching 25-30 carry games every single week.
Another strength of the WKU offense will be their offensive line, which returns four starters from last year. Jordan Meredith enters 2020 as a preseason all-conference first team member, making 25 career starts and leading all FBS guards in PFF’s pass blocking grade. WKU’s offensive line were stellar in power success rate (81.8%) and sack rate (4.2%), also ranking 28th in the FBS in sacks allowed (20).
Defensive Players to Know: DL Deangelo Malone, DB Devon Key, LB Kyle Bailey
WKU’s defense will be a veteran unit, led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Deangelo Malone. Malone was a disruptive force for the Hilltoppers in 2019, recording 99 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, and 11 sacks. He has great closing speed on ball carriers and can win outside with a variety of bend and arm techniques. His speed also allows him to lineup in a number of ways, whether hands down in a 4-3 or a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker. I think he can easily replicate his numbers from last year (which would make him the all-time sacks leader at WKU), and he’ll be a menace for any team he’ll face this season. If he refines his pass rush technique, he could be a possible late-round gem in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Another veteran returning is safety Devon Key, having made 37 career starts. Key has been productive in his lengthy career at WKU, tallying 256 career tackles, five interceptions, and two defensive touchdowns. Along with cornerbacks Trae Meadows and Dionte Ruffin, Key should be better equipped to matchup against Louisville’s deep receiving corps.
Linebacker Kyle Bailey also returns after racking up 109 combined tackles, three interceptions and five pass breakups in 2019. WKU should have a deep linebacker group that will keep WKU in the mix for best defense in Conference USA, with Tennessee transfer Will Ignont and Eli Brown bolstering the unit.
Points of Interest
- How will Micale Cunningham fare in round three?
In his first two games against WKU, Micale Cunningham — then known to the college football world as Malik Cunningham — delivered wins for Louisville in relief of starter Jawon Pass. Cunningham’s numbers were surprisingly efficient for where he was in his development (19/32, 211 yards, 2 TDs; 37 carries, 175 yards).
This year, Cunningham should be far more confident as a passer than in recent years, and will enter this game as the starter. I don’t think that will translate to him throwing the ball 30+ times a game simply because that’s not Scott Satterfield’s style, but I do think the confidence will lead to him attacking WKU’s coverage more often as opposed to relying on his legs. Tutu Atwell was able to exploit WKU with multiple deep touchdown catches last year, and it’s likely they will try to attack it again with deep play action passes. I’d also expect this game to be a chance for Satterfield to get Justin Marshall red zone opportunities, if they present itself.
- Will Louisville’s defense be able to force WKU into passing downs?
Louisville held WKU to 43 rushing yards in last year’s contest, which was a season-low for the Cardinals, and the second-lowest for the Hilltoppers. While they allowed 245 passing yards, they limited WKU to 53% completion and constantly harassed Steven Duncan with pressure.
Without star receiver Lucky Jackson, and Jacquez Sloan entering the transfer portal, WKU only returns two significant options at receiver; Jahcour Pearson (76 rec., 804 yds, seven TD’s), and tight end Joshua Simon (30 rec., 430 yds, four TD’s). The opportunity is there for Louisville’s secondary to open the season with a really strong performance.
But the one thing that could hold it up is Ty Pigrome’s mobility. Louisville did have its share of struggles against dual-threat quarterbacks, and Pigrome has managed to pull off multiple 100-yard rushing games in his career. He also had a huge game at Texas in 2017 (9/12, 175 yards, two passing TD’s; 64 rushing yards, rushing TD) before a season-ending injury in the second half. Adding Gaej Walker to the mix will put Louisville’s front seven to the test, one that is aiming to improve its havoc in the backfield.
If Louisville is able to keep WKU’s running game in check like last year, that would put them in a much more comfortable situation on passing downs. It would also give Louisville a chance to showcase its improved pass rush, as well as how much the secondary has improved in the offseason.
- Who will Louisville start at kicker and punter?
As of this post, neither team has released their depth chart for the opener. This means that the kicker and punter jobs are still up for debate, after Louisville had to replace both Blanton Creque and Mason King.
I made some of my own projections on the positions last month, and I’m still holding on to my belief that Brock Travelstead will be the starting kicker on Saturday. He’s already got the leg strength to be a quality option for kickoffs, and his ability to get consistent touchbacks will be a huge help for Louisville’s defense. I do believe that he is accurate enough to at least be considered for a starting role on field goals, but Ryan Chalifoux can definitely contend for the job with his experience from last year.
Punter, though, is still a mystery to me. Anyone from Ryan Harwell to Logan Lupo could be the starter for Louisville on Saturday. It’ll be tough to replicate the work of an all-time leader like Mason King from the start of their career, but as long as they’re consistent, they will have a huge impact for Louisville’s defense.