Hilltoppers fall 35-21 at Louisville in season opener

Western Kentucky’s struggles with its defensive secondary and lack of offensive consistency is what led to last season’s loss to Louisville at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.

Fast forward one year and the Hilltoppers again dealt with the same problems.

Taking on U of L in its season opener on Saturday night at Cardinal Stadium, WKU couldn’t contain the Cardinals’ explosive quarterback and wide receivers, could never get its offense to click and ultimately suffered a 35-21 loss to kick off the 2020 campaign.

Micale Cunningham — the Cards’ offensive pilot — completed 19-of-34 passes for 343 yards and three touchdowns, while recording 12 carries for 24 yards and another score. Alongside him, wideouts Dez Fitzpatrick (one touchdown) and Braden Smith each made four receptions for 110 yards for a U of L team that finished with 487 total yards.

The Hilltoppers finished with 248 yards and had a 32:33-27:27 disadvantage in time of possession.

Western (0-1) will try to bounce back next Saturday as it hosts Liberty for its home opener at Houchens-Smith Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. and will be broadcast on ESPNU.

The Toppers couldn’t have asked for a better start.

After forcing Louisville to punt, the Cardinals fumbled the snap and WKU recovered the loose ball at the 1-yard-line — and needed just one play to score on a touchdown run by Gaej Walker to put the Hilltoppers in front 7-0 at the 12:53 mark of the first quarter.

U of L quickly answered, scoring on Cunningham’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Ean Pfeifer to cap a four-play, 92-yard drive that took just 1:56 and even the scoreboard at 7-7 at the 10:57 mark.

The Cardinals doubled their lead just six seconds into the second with a 14-yard touchdown run by Cunningham as he marched into the left corner of the end zone untouched to make it 14-7. Just five minutes later, Javian Hawkins took a handoff from Cunningham and scored on an easy 19-yard run to put U of L up 21-7 at the 9:21 mark.

U of L scored once more in the first half — putting together a lengthy 13-play, 87-yard series that knocked 5:52 off the clock and capping it with a two-yard touchdown pass from Cunningham to Marshon Ford — to take a comfortable 28-7 advantage into the locker room at halftime.

WKU found some life early into the third quarter as Omari Alexander blocked a Louisville punt and the Hilltoppers recovered the loose ball at the Cardinals’ 4. Just two plays later, Malik Staples — who made the transition from linebacker to running back over the offseason — scored on a one-yard run to cut WKU’s deficit to 28-14 at the 10:23 mark.

Louisville — just like it did all throughout the night — made another big play to add to their lead just minutes after WKU’s score as Cunningham unloaded and fired a 70-yard touchdown pass to Fitzpatrick.

WKU had Fitzpatrick in double coverage — and Antwon Kincade looked to have had an interception lined up — but Fitzpatrick stepped in front of him, made the catch and sprinted untouched into the end zone to put the Cardinals up 35-14.

WKU scored on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Tyrrell Pigrome to Mitchell Tinsley — both players’ first scores as Hilltoppers — but still trailed 35-21 with 5:40 remaining in the game and couldn’t overcome the deficit.

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