NASHVILLE – A mix of Louisville’s team speed and untimely miscues made it a long day for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers didn’t have an answer for the Cardinals’ early rushing attack, and by the time they found their own rhythm, it was too late.

The Cardinals scored 24 points in the second quarter to blow the game open in a 38-21 win over WKU on Saturday afternoon at Nissan Stadium.

The Hilltoppers (1-2) outscored Louisville (2-1) in the second half but couldn’t make up for a 31-7 halftime deficit. The Cardinals offense outdueled WKU’s 415-288 in total yardage and 210-43 on the ground.

The top rushing team in the Atlantic Coast Conference took it to WKU with backup quarterback Malik Cunningham leading a first-half barrage of 138 yards on the ground. It’s the second year in a row Cunningham has led the Cardinals to a win over the Hilltoppers. Louisville announced Friday morning that two-game starter Jawon “Puma” Pass wouldn’t play Saturday with an injury.

Cunningham guided the offense to 6.2 yards per play and 4.1 yards per rushing attempt.

“They just overpowered us, to be honest with you,” WKU coach Tyson Helton said. “Defensively for them, they controlled the line of scrimmage and were able to hold the point and control it. … I thought our defense did fairly well. They moved the ball, but they were able to keep them at bay. They were able to do those and get the shots down the field and that’s what really hurt us.”

Louisville receiver Tutu Atwell was the beneficiary of three touchdowns on four receptions totaling 141 yards. Two of his three touchdown receptions went for 46 and 62 yards that added to WKU’s allowance of big scoring plays.

The backbreaker of them all came at the hands of quarterback Steven Duncan, whose fumble in the final minute of the first half led to a 30-yard scoop-and-score to make Louisville’s lead 31-7.

“I gave them seven points right before the half and I’ve got to play better,” Duncan said. “We fought and we’ve got to put it all together and play four straight quarters.”

Duncan completed 25-of-47 pass attempts for 245 yards and three touchdowns.

The closest WKU came to making it competitive was Joshua Simon’s 77-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown to make it 14-7 early in the second quarter.

Before that score, Atwell helped Louisville mount a 14-0 lead with touchdown receptions of nine and 46 yards.

The Cardinals responded to WKU’s only score of the first half with a quick drive capped by Javian Hawkins’ 20-yard touchdown run. A Blanton Creque 43-yard field goal stretched the lead to 24-7 with 1:23 left in the half.

Three plays later, the Cardinals forced a fumble from Duncan that Rodjay Burns recovered and returned for a 30-yard touchdown.

Outside of the 77-yard touchdown play, WKU’s offense mustered 48 yards of offense on 23 plays and converted just 2-of-7 third-down attempts. Louisville outgained WKU 138-6 on the ground and controlled the pace with 16 first downs against WKU’s three.

“Going into halftime and the year, we know we have a great defense at all positions,” defensive tackle Jeremy Darvin said. “Coach just told us this is not us and it’s not a lot of yelling on the defensive side. Man up or stop it or it’s going to keep happening. It was a gut check for the team and ourselves. We wanted to go out and show what we should’ve done the whole game.”

WKU outscored Louisville 14-7 in the second half but couldn’t finish drives late.

The Hilltoppers caught a bit of light by capitalizing on a Louisville turnover. Safety Devon Key recovered a fumble off a Cunningham pitch and set WKU up at the Louisville 36. Duncan got his second touchdown pass seven plays later on an 8-yard pass to Jahcour Pearson.

Cunningham left the game in the third quarter when his helmet came off during a run and didn’t reenter the game. Instead, coach Scott Satterfield rolled with third-stringer Evan Conley, who stepped in to bring another big moment for the Cardinals offense.

The first play after a WKU turnover, Atwell earned his third touchdown of the day on a 62-yard pass from Conley to extend Louisville’s lead to 38-14.

Duncan’s third touchdown went to Kyle Fourtenbary on a 3-yard completion early in the fourth quarter, but the Hilltoppers couldn’t score again with two failed fourth-down attempts in Louisville territory. The last one happened at the Cardinals’ 8-yard line when Jackson couldn’t reel in a pass from Duncan in the end zone with 3:52 left.

The Hilltoppers finished the fourth quarter 1-of-5 on third down and failed to convert their last three fourth downs.

“I think we faced adversity and go right at it,” Duncan said. “We’re not scared of it. We played to win this game and we came out of the locker room, so there’s no fear of who they were or where we are or any of that. I think we believe we could’ve won that game. They were a great team today and did what they had to do. We wanted to battle and wanted to come out and win this game.”

UP NEXT

WKU has a bye week before returning to Houchens-Smith Stadium to host UAB on Sept. 28

NOTES

Tyson Helton is now 1-2 as WKU’s head coach. … WKU has lost 11 straight to Louisville dating back to 1975 and the Cardinals extended their lead in the all-time series 21-12. … WKU is now 1-2 in games played at Nissan Stadium. … Running back Gaej Walker was held under 100 yards for the first time this season with 41 yards on 14 carries. … Simon’s 77-yard touchdown reception was the longest play of the season and the longest completion for the Hilltoppers since Lucky Jackson’s 93-yard reception against Middle Tennessee in 2017. … Quarterback Steven Duncan’s three touchdown passes marked a career-high. … Announced attendance in Nashville was 22,665.{&end}

– Follow WKU athletics beat writer Elliott Pratt on Twitter @EPrattBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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