LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (0-0) vs. WESTERN KENTUCKY HILLTOPPERS (0-0)
Game Time: 8 p.m.
Location: Cardinal Stadium: Louisville, Ky.
Television: ACC Network
Announcers: Roy Philpott (play-by-play), Tim Hasselbeck (analyst) and Eric Wood (sideline)
Favorite: Louisville by 12
All-Time Series: Louisville leads, 21-12
Last Meeting: Louisville won 38-21 on Sept. 14, 2019 in Nashville
Louisville Depth Chart:
About Western Kentucky
Louisville went down to Nashville and handled a a solid Western Kentucky team last season. After that game the Hilltoppers seemed to really come together on offense and Tyson Helton finished his first season with nine wins. Helton will have a good amount of players back on offense but he will need his new Quarterback to be consistent, as that was a key to those nine wins last year.
Tyrell Pigrome transferred in from Maryland this year and he was announced as the starter recently. Pigrome didn’t light the world on fire from a statistical standpoint for the Terps but he showed flashes as a dynamic playmaker with his arm and his legs. At 5-10/210, Pigrome is obviously undersized and I wonder if his height has led to some of his interceptions. I know that he’s just made some bad decisions in the games I’ve watched him, but sometimes you take the good with the bad. The key factor when it comes to Louisville is how they contain him as a runner. We saw in the bowl game that even when they played well, the defense allowed too many rushing yards on scrambles.
In my opinion, Gaej Walker is the best player on the Tops’ offense. Walker ran for 1,208 yards last season and I think there’s a good chance he’ll show some improvement this year. Walker switched to Running Back from Defensive Back last year and they really found a diamond in the rough. I think that another full off season as well as a better understanding of the offensive scheme should lead to another big year for Walker.
Helton shied away from the running game when games were close or the Tops were behind. He has to do better with that this year as Walker is not only his best player but he’s the best way to take pressure off of Pigrome.
Helton lost a key player in Lucky Jackson to graduation but he has some options coming back this year. Jahcour Pearson returns after racking up 804 receiving yards last year and 7 touchdowns. Jacquez Sloan also returns after a solid season where he caught 34 passes. Both of those guys should be strong options in the slot but you have to wonder how Pigrome handles throws over the middle of the field. If Western puts him on the run and uses those guys on quick throws and out routes, it will limit them.
Part of the reason there has to be some concern is that Western doesn’t have a proven option on the outside. Jackson has been a key player for the offense for the last few years but they didn’t develop another option who has his type of size. Xavier Lane is a vetaran receiver on the roster but he only had one catch last year. Craig Burt Jr. is a JUCO player that they added this year who is a big target at 6-4. Outside of those two, I’m not sure who they utilize to stretch the field down the sideline. Terez Traynor is a guy to keep an eye out as a potential option for them. He was a pretty decent recruit who has been on campus for two years.
The Tight End position is strong for WKU. Joshua Simon had a huge play in the game last year and he became a consistent option for the offense after that game. Simon is 6-5/235 and he can run very well. The Tops will have to replace his backup after a transfer but they have some guys with good size who should be able to handle some of the blocking responsibilities in short yardage.
Western returns three of their five starters on the Offensive Line. One of the reasons they were good on offense last year was that they returned all five starters from the year before. Louisville was able to get penetration and make some stops behind the line of scrimmage but they only got to the Quarterback once. There could be some drop-off here but I’d expect for a group this veteran to have two guys who can step in and do a good job.
Clayton White has been nominated for the Broyles award twice during his tenure at WKU. He might have a shot at winning it this year. White gets nine starters back this year and as long as they’ve been developing backups, he shouldn’t miss a beat in the two spots he needs to replace. Western has had some turnover at Head Coach but they were smart to keep White around.
The defensive front for the Tops will be a strength in some ways but might be a liability in others. DeAngelo Malone is an All-American level player after a ridiculous season in 2019. Malone had 99 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and 16 QB hurries. Malone pairs with Juwuan Jones at the end spots and they combined for nearly half of the teams tackles for loss and they had more than half of the teams sacks. They’re very good players but they need help.
The two tackles spots in this 4-2-5 scheme are mostly asked to just plug the middle and keep the linebackers clean, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be disruptive. Jeremy Darvin and Jaylen George will be the likely starters this year and both are big and stocky which means they’re hard to move. Louisville will have to do better this year at using outside zone to get around these guys and create running lanes for Javian Hawkins. In the game last year, they allowed these guys to beat them to the spot and that allowed their linebackers to run free and get to the edge with little resistance. We saw the line improve with this as the year went on, so I think we will see more success with the run game this year.
The Hilltoppers leading tackler returns at Middle Linebacker and they also get Eli Brown back after an injury last year. Kyle Bailey is a guy that will get you a bunch of tackles in each game but not much more. At least not consistently. He is really good in between the tackles and is a beneficiary of the tackles plugging things up for him. The defense doesn’t ask him to make a bunch of plays behind the line but I think they’ll need him to do more if UofL’s Offensive Line has truly taken that step forward.
Brown should be back as a starter this year and he should be fully healthy. Brown is a speedy Linebacker who transferred in from Kentucky a few years ago and he’s had a solid impact there. His speed is his key when it comes to this game as he could make it hard for the UofL line to reach him on those zone blocks. He is a bit undersized, however, so he can be easier to handle if you get your hand on him.
The secondary for WKU is a veteran group that is a strength of the defense. They had mixed results in the game last season because they don’t have the speed you need to keep up with Louisville’s receivers. They rely on a very good pass rush to keep things in front of them but that’s not always easy when you have the play action game that UofL has. Tutu Atwell was able to get behind the defense once last year and I’ll be surprised if Louisville doesn’t try to do that more often this year.
Trae Meadows and Dionte Ruffin should return as the starters at corner. Both players did a really good job of closing on the ball last year to break up passes or force a drop. While neither player is a standout in coverage, they fit this defense well because they are sticky in coverage and they break on the ball well. Louisville has to test these guys down the field which is something they didn’t do last season.
The safety combo of Devon Key and Antwon Kincade return for what seems like the fifteenth year. Key is a really good player who can play the run and the pass well. He has made some plays against Louisville during his career. Kincade was the guy that Atwell blew past for a touchdown last year but he was very good in run support in the game last year. Louisville has to be better in the run game so that they can force the defense to adjust and get favorable matchups with the secondary.
Excitement Level: 9.3
It still feels a little weird, but by god we’re about to watch a Louisville Cardinal team play a game for the first time in six months. That added in with all of the reasons for the delay and just ... you know, everything that everyone has had to deal with since March is good for an extra couple of points on the excitement level.
Game Attire: Grey Heisman bird t-shirt
Need to get the relaxed watch-from-home attire down right out of the gate because it’s going to be more crucial this season than ever before.
Pregame Meal: Chicken wings
I have blocked off the two hours before kickoff to make this happen.
Bold Prediction: Louisville never trails in this game
I’m not saying the Cards will be perfect or that there won’t be any anxious or sloppy moments early on, I’m just saying Western Kentucky will never have more points than Louisville does after the ball has been kicked off this evening.
Justin Marshall TD Alert Level: Maximum Green Yellow (solidly low)
Our guy Ty Tyler has moved on, which means it’s on Justin Marshall alone to carry the weight of the revered No. 18 jersey. He caught six passes for 135 yards last season and was a target on a handful of deep balls. He’ll get into the endzone this season (MARK IT DOWN, WE WILL NOT BE REPEATING LAST YEAR’S TY TYLER SACK ALERT DISAPPOINTMENT), but it might not happen in week one.
Predicted Star of the Game: TuTu Atwell
The Tops had no answer for TuTu a season ago and it wound up being (arguably) the biggest difference in the game. They still don’t have an answer for him. Let the All-American campaign begin.
—Louisville has won 11 consecutive games against Western Kentucky, its longest active winning streak against any opponent. The Cardinals have not lost to the Hilltoppers since 1975.
—Louisville is 55-40-6 all-time in season openers, including 35-18-3 at home. The Cards were beaten at home by Notre Dame in their 2019 season opener.
—U of L has won five of its last six home openers.
—Western Kentucky is 60-35-6 all-time in season openers. The Hilltoppers have lost their last two season openers.
—Louisville plans to physically distance 12,000 spectators and implement other coronavirus protocols. Two pregame rituals are out with tailgating prohibited in the parking lots and the team’s Card March into the stadium discontinued.
—Louisville QB Micale Cunningham led the country in passing yards per completion last season, averaging 18.4 yards per catch. The redshirt junior quarterback also topped the country with six completed passes of over 70 yards.
—Louisville has won eight straight games versus Conference USA opponents, with the last loss coming in 2011 — a 17-13 loss at home to Marshall. Overall, U of L has won 21 of its last 22 games against teams from C-USA.
—A season ago, Louisville became the second team in ACC history to go 0-8 in league play one season and 5-3 the very next year. The turnaround was the second-largest in U of L football history. The Cards went 7-5 in John L. Smith’s first year of 1998 after going just 1-10 the year before.
— In his seven seasons as a head coach, Scott Satterfield’s teams are 48-3 when scoring 30 or more points. The Cardinals were 7-0 last season when hitting the 30-point mark.
—Louisville is 20-10-1 in season-opening night home games.
—Louisville is only the third active ACC member Western Kentucky has faced in program history. WKU was 2-0 against Miami (1930, 1931) prior to the creation of the ACC in 1953 and is 0-1 against Virginia Tech (2008).
—WKU defensive end DeAngelo Malone became the first Hilltopper to be voted Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year last season, producing 99 total tackles (54 solo, 45 assisted) – including 21 for loss (ranked fourth in the nation) – with 11.5 sacks (ranked 12th in the nation), 16 quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.
—This marks the start of the 102nd season of football for both Louisville and Western Kentucky.
—Tyrrell Pigrome is expected to debut as WKU’s QB after transferring from Maryland. He totaled 2,407 yards of offense in 34 games with the Terrapins, including seven starts.
—Louisville went 7-0 last season when winning the turnover battle, and was just 1-5 when losing it.
—Louisville is 18-4 all-time against Western Kentucky in games played in Louisville, and has won 10 straight such games.
—Louisville will be sporting the combination of black helmets, red jerseys and black pants for just the second time in program history. The first time was actually their most recent game, the 2019 Music City Bowl victory over Mississippi State.
—Louisville is 2-3 all-time in season openers against Western Kentucky.
—Louisville is currently riding a consecutive game scoring streak that spans 250 games dating back to a 31-0 loss to Florida State during the 2000 season. The streak ranks as the second longest in the ACC behind only Virginia Tech, and the 12th-longest nationally.
—Louisville is 189-13 all-time when scoring 35 or more points in a game. The Cards are also 6-116 all-time when allowing opponents to score 40 or more points.
—”Every game you play means a lot to you, but particularly one where you get to play against a really good opponent like Louisville. For us to be able to go up there and to get a win against them, that would be huge. That’s the goal. That’s what the mission is. Our kids will play their butt off to try and make that happen.” —WKU head coach Tyson Helton
—“As you look at their team, a lot of guys have played a lot of games. Ten seniors that we got penciled in as starters. That’s phenomenal, and then the other guys are juniors. They’re a very veteran team.” —Scott Satterfield
—“Coming off a year like last year with a bowl game win, that’s my first time winning a bowl game since I’ve been in college. We have a lot to build off of. We’re returning like 8 starters on defense. There’s a lot of older guys out there with experience. It’s exciting.” —Dorian Etheridge
—“It’s great to just play a state opponent. I think our kids are happy to play. I know Louisville will be happy to play. And hopefully, two good football teams will put on a good show for everybody and make college football proud.” —WKU head coach Tyson Helton
—“We’re ready to go. We have been going against each other every day. We are ready to see another team.” —Micale Cunningham
—“Obviously we played them last year and they are a very talented bunch. They lost some good guys up front, but Coach Satterfield does a good job recruiting. We know they’ll have more good players, good defensive linemen. That’s really where they’re whole deal starts, is up front. We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us. We’ll see where we land on Sept. 12.” —WKU defensive coordinator Bryan Ellis
—”It’s indescribable. We’ve been out here since June preparing with a whole bunch of uncertainty not knowing what was to come in the future. So it’s a blessing; we’re all thankful, we’re all excited and we’re all preparing the best we can to get the game plan down and we’re looking forward to having a great game.” —Isaiah Hayes
—“We have to bring our own juice. We would love to have the fans and it would help us on both sides of the ball, but as players we’re motivated ourselves.” —Micale Cunningham
—“We know what our offense can do. They’re a top 25 offense. We know what they can do. It’s just on us right now. We take pride in that, knowing we can be the deciding factor of how our season goes.” —Dorian Etheridge
—”You’ve got so much time on your hands in Game 1. We’ve watched every game. Every formation. Every pressure. They have too. There’s nothing new there. Everybody will have some new twist to keep people guessing. Coach Satterfield is a tremendous coach and very, very smart football coach. I think his staff does a great job. I’m sure they’ll have some things for us, as well.” —WKU head coach Tyson Helton
—“It’s been crazy. All the players are up and happy. We’re ready to go.” —Micale Cunningham
Card Chronicle Prediction: Louisville 38, Western Kentucky 17