Rapid Reaction: Louisville tops WKU in season opener

Cardinals control in-state opponent, Micale Cunningham finishes with four touchdowns
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Louisville football did what it needed to do in its season opener against Western Kentucky (WKU).

The Cardinals produced 487 yards of offense in a 35-21 victory over WKU at Cardinal Stadium on Sept. 12. Louisville scored 21 points in the second quarter and led by three touchdowns at halftime, cruising to its first season-opening win since 2017. 

Micale Cunningham threw for 343 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for a score. Javian Hawkins rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown.  

"The guys made plays tonight," Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield said. 

Horrid Start

The 2020 season couldn’t have started much worse for Louisville.

After receiving the opening kickoff, its opening drive was disastrous. Following a holding penalty on first down, the Cardinals managed just three yards on three plays, setting up a fourth-and-17.

Punter Logan Lupo fumbled the snap and WKU recovered the ball on the 1-yard-line.

The Hilltoppers didn’t waste time after the turnover, as Gaej Walker scored for a 7-0 lead.

Three Straight

Louisville scored touchdowns on its final three straight drives of the first half with sustained possessions that converted third downs.

A 10-play, 93-yard drive that ended with a Cunningham touchdown run gave Louisville its first lead.

Cunningham found Atwell for catches of 14 and 17 yards on a 65-yard drive that was capped by a 19-yard touchdown run by Hawkins for a 21-7 advantage midway through the second quarter.

Hassan Hall broke loose for a 41-yard run on the Cardinals’ final drive of the second quarter, which extended Louisville’s lead to 28-7 at halftime.

Louisville went 7 of 10 on third-down conversions in the first half.

Big-Play Braden

After falling behind 7-0, Braden Smith became Cunningham’s favorite receiver in the first quarter. The 5-foot-10 sophomore hauled in a 63-yard reception on third-and-9 on a drive that led to Louisville’s first score.

"It was surreal, growing up as a kid, this is a moment that you dream of," Smith said. "I'm glad it worked out in our favor."

Smith brought in a ball on a slant route down the middle of the field for a 48-yard catch in Louisville’s final drive of the first quarter, which led to an eventual touchdown.

"Braden was one-on-one and beat his defender," Satterfield said. "Those were big-time plays."

In his debut at Louisville, Smith finished with four receptions for 110 yards. He is the first Louisville player to have a 100-yard receiving game in his debut since Deion Branch in 2000.

Welcome Back

Russ Yeast had a long road to recovery to play during his senior year.

After a season-ending injury last November and multiple surgeries, the safety announced his return late in the first quarter.

WKU quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome connected with Jahcour Pearson for a 50-yard throw down the middle of the field, but Yeast forced a fumble and recovered the ball on the 9-yard-line, returning the ball to Louisville.

"That was awesome," Satterfield said. "Tonight was his first time playing live football, even in the scrimmages, we weren't allowing him to make tackles."

The Cardinals capitalized on the turnover, as Cunningham scored on a 14-yard run to give Louisville a 14-7 lead on the opening play of the second quarter.

Yeast finished with three tackles.

Defense?

After struggling defensively for the past several years, Louisville showed signs of improvement against WKU. 

"I thought our defense looked outstanding," Satterfield said. 

Louisville limited the Hilltoppers to 120 yards of offense and three first downs while holding them to just three plays of more than 10 yards in the first half. 

WKU's first two touchdowns came on drives that started inside the 5-yard-line. 

Louisville limited WKU to 248 yards of offense and 4.3 yards per play. 

More Trouble

Louisville’s punting problems weren’t limited to the game’s opening possession.

The Cardinals’ first drive of the second half stalled after one first down, ending at their own 27-yard-line. On fourth-and-7, Lupo’s punt was blocked, setting up a WKU drive on the 4-yard-line.

The Hilltoppers scored two plays later, cutting Louisville’s lead to 28-14.

Up next

Louisville hosts Miami (Fla.) in the conference opener for both teams Saturday, Sept. 19. ESPN's College GameDay will host its weekly pregame show prior to the match up.

Miami defeated UAB 31-14 in its season opener on Thursday.

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.