LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Western Kentucky and Louisville kick off the season hoping to build on impressive turnarounds a year ago.
The in-state schools open Saturday night with second-year coaches who capped successful transitions with bowl wins. Louisville’s Scott Satterfield lifted a program from 2-10 in 2018 to 8-5 last fall, earning a Music City Bowl win and Atlantic Coast Conference coach of the year honors along the way.
One of the Cardinals’ wins came over WKU, which rebounded under Tyson Helton to beat Arkansas and Army and finish 9-4 with a First Responder Bowl victory. Helton was named Conference USA coach of the year for the six-game improvement.
Both programs seek to sustain the success they had, starting with this season’s lone matchup of Bluegrass State FBS schools after a summer of schedule-juggling due to the coronavirus pandemic created uncertainty with non-conference games.
“It’s great to just play a state opponent,” Helton said. “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 faces a daunting path with nine of its opponents having reached the postseason in 2019. That includes a newly added non-conference game on Oct. 31 at BYU, which shellacked Navy 55-3 Monday night.
The Hilltoppers’ priority is halting an 11-game slide against Louisville, leads the series 21-12. The task begins with slowing down a Cardinals offense that ranked in the top 30 nationally in scoring (33.1 points per game) and total offense (447.3 yards).
Meanwhile, a Louisville defense seeking improvement faces a challenge from WKU, which averaged nearly 260 yards passing per game last season and returns depth on both sides of the ball. It’s a challenge the Cardinals relish, especially with a 10-game ACC slate starting next week against Miami.
“As you look at their team, a lot of guys have played a lot of games,” Satterfield said of WKU. “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.”
Other things to watch as WKU and Louisville square off:
Louisville returns three offensive playmakers coming off surprising seasons. Quarterback Micale Cunningham threw for 2,065 yards, 22 touchdowns and set a program record for efficiency at 194.45 Receiver Tutu Atwell caught 70 passes for 1,276 yards and 12 TDs, while Javian Hawkins rushed for 1,525 yards and nine scores. All three are on national award watch lists at their positions.
WKU defensive end DeAngelo Malone is on several watch lists as well after emerging as one of the nation’s best at his position. He’s C-USA’s preseason pick to repeat as Defensive Player of the Year — the first Hilltopper to do so — after recording 99 tackles (21 for loss) and 11.5 sacks. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior also forced 16 QB hurries and returned a forced fumble for a TD.
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.
Satterfield remains undecided who will succeed departed kicker Blanton Creque and punter Mason King. Walk-on James Turner handled kickoffs late last season and is competing for kicker with freshman Brock Travelstead, who is also vying for the punter’s job with junior college transfer Ryan Harwell.
Louisville plans to physically distance 12,000 spectators around 60,800-seat Cardinal Stadium 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. “We have to bring our own juice,” Cunningham said of the subdued atmosphere. “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.”
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25