LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (1-1) vs. WESTERN KENTUCKY HILLTOPPERS (0-2)
Game Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: Cardinal Stadium
Television: Regional Sports Networks (Fox Sports South in Louisville)
Announcers: Evan Lepler (play-by-play), Takeo Spikes (analyst) and Lyndsay Rowley (sideline)
About Western Kentucky:
Western Kentucky had to feel pretty good about their team after the first quarter of their game against Maine last weekend. They were up 21-0 after having a solid game against a very good Wisconsin team the week before. Then the rest of the game happened. Maine went on to outscore WKU 31-7 through the last three quarters and the Toppers have more questions than answers headed into their second game against a power five school.
Drew Eckels won the starting quarterback job this season after sitting for four years waiting his turn. He is a tall quarterback that fits the mold of a pocket passer but he runs the ball just well enough that they incorporate some read option aspects to the offense. Eckels does a really good job reading the defense and he has enough speed to make a defense pay a little bit if they don’t account for him.
From a passing standpoint, Eckels has been very hot and cold. He was solid against a very good Wisconsin defense and had some plays where his receivers let him down. He also missed some guys down the field that could have led to scores. Against Maine, he was able to push the ball down the field more and he looked very good early in the game. He has the arm strength to throw it anywhere on the field and puts good touch on his deep ball. He can also throw pretty well on the run. The only real question with him is his consistency.
Eckels was injured on the last offensive play of the game for the Toppers and is listed as a game time decision for this weekend. If he can’t go, I would expect to see up to three different quarterbacks. Personally, I think they should go with true freshman Kevaris Thomas. He’s one of the highest rated recruits to ever sign with WKU and he’s the only other quarterback they have that had a FBS offer coming out of high school. At 0-2, they don’t have much to lose and they might as well get him legit game experience for the future.
The Toppers probably needed to figure out their running back situation against Maine last week but they still don’t seem to know who they want to be the top guy or even the top two guys. DeAndre Firby is a veteran big back who leads the running backs with 4.67 yards per carry. Marquez Trigg is listed as the other “or” starter but he only has 10 yards on his 8 carries. That’s obviously not what they need to balance out the offense, so the search still continues.
If I were in Mike Sanford’s shoes, I would keep trying to find a way to get Garland LaFrance the football. He has the most carries with 9 in two games but he also has 7 catches on the season. LaFrance is a true freshman that had offers from Texas Tech, TCU, Colorado State and Troy. It’s easy to see why all of those offenses wanted him because he is a burner. He caught a 75 yard touchdown pass off of a swing pass against Maine. He can really get moving when he gets in to space and all of these offenses work to get that done for their fastest players.
Lucky Jackson is also a guy in this offense that has really good speed. He’s the Toppers top receiver and had two long touchdowns last week. Jackson is used at different spots but he has looked best in the slot to me. His first touchdown last week was on a wheel route while the second was on a deep cross from the inside spot in trips formation. They like to get him matched up on slower guys and that will likely continue against Louisville.
The rest of the receiver group is rounded out by Quin Jernighan, Jacquez Sloan, and Xavier Lane. Each has something different to bring to the offense with Lane being the big outside reciever, Jernighan being an all around threat, and Sloan being the quickest in the group as well as the guy that is used in different ways in the offense. Lane is a guy that caught my eye as an option down the sideline against a group of corners for UofL that have yet to prove themselves. Sloan is the other guy to keep an eye on . Sanford has a very creative offense and a guy like Sloan could be used on a trick play or two.
The offensive line for the Toppers played very well against Wisconsin but was the biggest weak point for the offense against Maine. How that happens is beyond me but the numbers and the video don’t lie. Maine was able to get to Eckels six times and forced a fumble that they returned for a touchdown. They also held shut down the WKU running game which you just don’t typically see from an FCS team. This offensive line doesn’t have great size but it fits what they want to do with stretch runs and screen throws. They can get out and block in space and they might see some success with that against an aggressive Louisville defense. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see them try to help the line by working in a good amount of short passes to the running backs and their very talented tight end, Mik’Quan Deane.
Western Kentucky has struggled since Jeff Brohm left for Purdue and that was evident when they fell to Maine last week after being up 21 points. A slight bright spot in that game was the defense who got a pick six and played pretty well outside of a handful of plays. Unfortunately, those handful of plays all went for touchdowns. Western will come to Louisville hoping to find a way to get to the quarterback like they did against Wisconsin.
The defensive front for the Toppers had a solid game against Wisconsin but in week two, they weren’t able to build on that success like you would expect against a FCS opponent. Jeremy Darvin is the guy that really stands out with this group at defensive tackle. He’s a stocky guy with a similar build to former Card DeAngelo Brown. He plays extremely hard and has a knack for beating blockers and closing quickly on his target. Evan Sayner mans the other tackle spot and they combine for a solid team when it comes to stuffing run plays.
DeAngelo Malone is another guy that flashed on the screen a lot in the first two games for the Toppers. He’s a tall and long defensive end that has been able to get around the edge and get to the quarterback a couple of times. He’s also been used a couple of times in coverage and his athleticism jumps out at you. I think their best combination is Malone with Juwuan Jones on the other side. Jones is a former linebacker that bulked up last year and still shows that athletic ability that you would hope he would hold onto after the position change. Both of these guys will provide a solid challenge for Louisville’s tackles.
WKU runs a 4-2-5 set almost exclusively and they are very solid at the linebacker spot. Ben Holtis a captain of the defense and really makes a lot of plays at his middle linebacker spot. Holt is the son of former defensive coordinator Nick Holt and he stuck around after Holt followed Jeff Brohm to Purdue. Holt is a very good linebacker against the run but he leaves a lot to be desired in coverage. His battery mate, Masai Whyte, is more of a player that gets to play in space and make plays with his speed. Both will be guys to keep an eye on when it comes to UofL’s tight ends and running backs in the passing game.
Eli Brown is a guy to keep an eye out for at linebacker. He transferred from Kentucky and got a waiver to play immediately. He got a lot of snaps last week and showed why he was an SEC talent at some point. I think he’s better in coverage than Holt and that could get him more snaps against Louisville if Bobby Petrino comes out throwing a lot again.
The Toppers’ secondary had to be disappointed in how things turned out this past weekend. They started off the game with a pick six on their first drive on the field. They held Maine to a 41% completion percentage. They also broke up 8 passes on the day. But, they gave up three touchdown passes in man coverage and those three touchdowns were all that Maine needed on offense to get the win. To hold a team to 12 completions and still give up three touchdowns has to be rough on film day.
The top defensive back for WKU is DeAndre Farris at cornerback. He finished last season with 13 PBUs and has 3 so far this year. He’s an undersized guy at 5-10 but plays with the energy and fire that you want to see at the position. Roger Cray mans the other corner spot with Ta’Corian Darden in the slot as a nickel. All three of these guys can run well and do well to keep up win coverage but they all have shown that they can have real trouble playing the ball in the air. With their lack of size, Louisville should look to exploit this on Saturday. It could be a good opportunity to get their passing game going.
A good illustration of how the Maine game went is Devon Key getting a pick six to give them a two score lead in the first quarter and then missing an open field tackle to give up a long touchdown catch and run in the second quarter. Key and Drell Greene are solid safeties but they both have had some issues with tackling in space and coverage. Western will run a good amount of man coverage with Key covering a slot guy or a safety. Greene has been a deep safety more often but they both really need to be able to do more in run support. The coverage issues are a little less frequent but they have to play downhill in this defense and make plays on the edge. Unfortunately, that’s where Wisconsin and Maine found success running the ball.
—Louisville is 41-7 in home games under the direction of Bobby Petrino.
—Under Petrino, the Cardinals are 16-2 in home games against non-conference opponents.
—Like Louisville, Western Kentucky is celebrating its 100th season of football in 2018.
—Illinois (8), Ball State (9), Memphis (9) and SMU (9) are the only FBS programs with fewer seniors on their roster than Western Kentucky.
—Louisville has won nine consecutive games against Western Kentucky. The series dates back to 1922, but the two teams are meeting for the first time in 20 years. Every game since 1955 (14 consecutive) has been played in Louisville, and the Hilltoppers are seeking their first win in the series since 1975.
—Bobby Petrino is 5-0 all-time against teams that are currently members of Conference USA.
—Louisville has won five consecutive games against Conference USA opponents.
—Louisville has not finished a season without a home loss since 2006.
—This will be the third time since 2015 that Western Kentucky will have faced off against one of its former head coaches. Bobby Petrino coached the Hilltoppers in 2013.
—Western Kentucky is 2-1 all-time against ACC opponents. The Tops defeated Miami in 1930 and 1931, and lost to Virginia Tech in 2008.
—Western Kentucky quarterback Drew Eckels was injured on the final play of the team’s loss to Maine, and will reportedly be a “game time decision” on Saturday.
—Twelve members of Western Kentucky’s 2018 roster hail from the city of Louisville.
—Louisville is 4-4 in games played on Sept. 15. The Cardinals defeated Western Kentucky 19-0 on this date in 1959.
—This is the first game of a three-game series between the two programs that was agreed to in 2016.
—Western has not recorded a rushing touchdown since last Nov. 4 at Vanderbilt. A Western running back has not reached the end zone since Oct. 28. In its last 10 games WKU has just four total rushing touchdowns. The Toppers are averaging just 63.8 yards per game on the ground under Sanford
—Through two games, Louisville’s offense has the fewest yards of any team in the ACC (631).
—Western Kentucky is looking to avoid its first 0-3 start since 2011.
—Louisville is off to a 1-1 start for the first time since 2011.
—Louisville is 20-3 under Bobby Petrino when scoring on its first drive, and just 15-16 when failing to.
—Louisville is 54-1 all-time and 18-0 under Bobby Petrino when rushing for at least 300 yards.
—Western Kentucky is 0-17 all-time when playing in front of crowds of more than 54,000 people.
—Louisville is currently riding a consecutive game scoring streak that spans 227 games dating back to the 2000 season. The streak ranks as the third longest in the ACC behind only Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.
—Louisville is 183-12 all-time when scoring 35 or more points in a game. The Cards are also 5-107 all-time when allowing opponents to score 40 or more points.
—”We wanna go up there and – we know what we have at stake. We got a lot of belief in these players. We just gotta string together positive plays in all three phases and not get caught up in too much in other than what’s important and that’s just executing what we’re setting out to execute.” —Western Kentucky head coach Mike Sanford
—“I had a great, great experience down there in Bowling Green, at Western Kentucky. The people were awesome. The administration was awesome. I had a great time. Now we have to try to go out and beat ‘em.” —Bobby Petrino
—“I like their focus this week. I thought the Tuesday and Wednesday practices have been some of the best practices overall. Some of that is just getting used to the practice style. I feel good about where we are at heading into this weekend’s game.” —Brian VanGorder
—“I fully do expect us to bounce back from this loss. I do. I know nobody else out there does right now.” —Western Kentucky head coach Mike Sanford
—“First thought is, ‘You’re going back home.’ You get to play against your hometown. It’s a big feeling. It’s a huge feeling. Knowing that you get to grow up in Louisville and then go back to Louisville and play the Cardinals, it’s a great feeling – especially as a Topper.” —Western Kentucky LB (and Central High grad) Der’Quione Mobley
—”I’ve got all the confidence in the world in Puma.” —Bobby Petrino
—“There are a lot of upper-class players on our team that are going to play with pride going up there to their hometown and playing against a team that they grew up around, grew up watching.” —Western Kentucky head coach Mike Sanford
—“The mood after the (Maine) game we were kinda embarrassed that we lost to a team that we were, obviously, much better than. But you can’t mourn for too long. You got 24 hours to mourn about the loss, so we kinda upbeat now. We’re trying to get ready for Louisville – when you play an ACC team you gotta get hype for that.” —Western Kentucky DE Juwuan Jones
—“As a Western Kentucky player, you want to see who’s the best school in Kentucky. That’s pretty big.” —Western Kentucky LB Der’Quione Mobley
Prediction: Louisville 33, Western Kentucky 14