LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Malik Cunningham might have earned the quarterback job with a second consecutive rescue of Louisville’s offense. Running back Dae Williams is also due a reward for finishing drives that saved the Cardinals against Western Kentucky.
Williams rushed for a pair of 1-yard touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including the go-ahead score with 5:01 remaining, as Louisville rallied from a 14-0 deficit to beat the in-state rival Hilltoppers 20-17 on Saturday night.
A week after leading Louisville (2-1) to four second-half scoring drives to beat FCS Indiana State 31-7 , Cunningham did it again against WKU (0-3). That wasn’t easy against a Hilltoppers squad not only determined to overcome last week’s collapse against FCS Maine, but earn some Bluegrass bragging rights.
At times Cunningham offered glimpses of his famous Cardinals predecessor, 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, with his runs and throws. He rushed 21 times for 129 yards and completed 10 of 18 passes for 88 yards, using his arm and feet on the pivotal drive with a 16-yard pass and back-to-back carries for 22 yards.
Williams added an 11-yard run to the 1 before scoring the winning TD on the way to finishing with 58 yards rushing on nine carries. But Cunningham set the tone, even though he again downplayed questions about being the starter.
“That’s my job: come off the bench, and whenever my name is called, be ready,” Cunningham said. “I’m always going to be ready.”
WKU had one last chance and drove to Louisville’s 34 to set up Ryan Nuss’ 51-yard field-goal attempt to tie the game. His low kick sailed wide right as time expired, leaving the Hilltoppers to grasp with a second consecutive close loss after leading by double digits. They blew a 21-0 lead in a 31-28 loss to FCS Maine last week.
“We’ve got to find ways to allow us to finish games,” WKU coach Mike Sanford said. “That’s two weeks in a row we’ve let them get away from us and, starting with me, we’ve got to find a way to put teams away.”
Louisville beat WKU for the 10th consecutive time in the series and gave coach Bobby Petrino the victory against the school he coached in 2013 before returning the next year for a second stint with the Cardinals.
Doing so involved more drama than he preferred.
“We came up with some big plays when it was needed. ... just enough to win the game,” said Petrino, whose team won despite being outgained in total yards 428-292. “There’s no question about it that we need to improve.”
Louisville senior safety London Iakopo was carted off the field with 3:42 left with what Petrino described as an upper body injury. Iakopo was injured while tackling WKU’s Joshua Samuel after an 11-yard run to the right sideline. Players and coaches surrounded Iakopo as medical personnel tended to him before he was strapped to a flat board and placed on a cart. Iakopo was cheered as he left the field. Petrino later said Iakopo’s arms and legs were moving.
Western Kentucky: Steven Duncan started at QB in place of Drew Eckels before soon being replaced by Davis Shanley, who positioned the Hilltoppers for the upset. He completed 22 of 33 passes for 240 yards, rushed and threw for a touchdown and completed several key passes during a fourth-quarter drive ending in Nuss’ 35-yard field goal for a 17-13 edge. Shanley was also sacked three times, including a nine-yard loss on which WKU turned the ball over on downs.
“I thought we were in a pretty good position to win this game,” Shanley said. “I have to do some things better. We have to do some things better.”
Louisville: Heroics by Cunningham and Williams did little to mask obvious concerns for the Cardinals. Besides being outgained, they allowed WKU to control the ball for 35:24 and convert 9 of 17 third-down opportunities. They were 2 of 11 on the money down. On the other hand, special teams blocked a field goal leading to Williams’ first TD, while the defense held WKU after the Cardinals finally went ahead.
Western Kentucky continues non-conference play at Ball State on Sept. 22, seeking to break a 2-all series tie.
Louisville opens Atlantic Coast Conference play at Virginia on Sept. 22.
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