Western Kentucky put up three touchdowns in Saturday’s season-opening loss to Louisville, but two of those were on possessions that started inside the Cardinals’ 5-yard line because of special teams’ plays from Omari Alexander.

The Hilltoppers struggled to move the ball at times, especially early, but are hoping to take some positives from late in the contest into this week’s 11 a.m. home opener at Houchens-Smith Stadium against Liberty.

“I felt like offensively we never really found a rhythm. We were behind the chains at times. We had some missed opportunities,” WKU head coach Tyson Helton said Monday. “ ... Second half, felt like toward the fourth quarter we started to find a rhythm, started to move the ball in the run game and those kinds of things, but just never could find a good foundation there offensively.”

The Hilltoppers had 248 yards of offense in the loss, but 50 came on a pass down the field to Jahcour Pearson that resulted in a turnover after Russ Yeast forced and recovered a fumble. Tyrrell Pigrome threw for 129 yards and a touchdown and the offense rushed for 119 yards.

WKU had 12 first downs in the game, with only three coming in the first half, and was 3-for-6 on third downs in the first half. The Hilltoppers finished the game 4-for-12 on third down. Offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis said Tuesday he thought two of those in the first half should have been converted.

“Those plays – the third downs – we call them money plays. That’s where you make your money,” Ellis said. “You’ve got to be good on third down. You can do what you want on first and second down, but when it comes to third down, if you hit that one, then the drive’s still alive.”

Both Helton and Ellis have been pleased with Pigrome’s progression and toughness since arriving at The Hill as a graduate transfer from Maryland. He had 17 carries and led the team with 68 yards rushing, but was just 10-for-23 passing in the game. He was sacked three times – two of which Ellis puts back on Pigrome. One of those was as he was going out of bounds a couple yards behind the line of scrimmage, and the other was on fourth-and-10 from the Louisville 37 on a play where Ellis said the Hilltoppers had a man open on the left side.

“Obviously you can’t win a football game completing 43% of your passes, so we’ve got to do a better job in that regard and I don’t put all that on Piggy – I think a lot of that comes down on me too,” Ellis said. “I’ve got to help him a little bit better with the plays that we call and I’ve got to give him better chances and the line at times has got to give us a little more time to try to find guys.”

Pigrome also had at least eight more carries than anyone else on the team. Gaej Walker had nine carries for 19 yards and Noah Whittington had 16 yards on five carries, which included a 15-yard run. Ellis said he would like the running backs to carry the load more, but said “we’re going to do whatever it takes to win the football game,” and added that they were going to use every skill set that Pigrome has to help do that.

Ellis also said wants to do a better job getting the ball in his playmakers’ hands. Pearson had five of WKU’s receptions – one of which was the 50-yard pass – and Mitchell Tinsley and Craig Burt Jr. accounted for the other five receptions. Ellis said he wants to get the ball to the two Hutchinson Community College transfers more, as well as Josh Simon, a Conference USA All-Freshman team member last year who was targeted twice Saturday without a reception.

“That’s part of being the offensive coordinator, that’s part of being a guy that’s calling plays, is get the ball in the hands of your good players, and we didn’t do a good job of that,” Ellis said. “I thought there were times that we had guys open, that we had our good players in space. We threw the ball 23 times. I think we dropped back to throw it about 30 times, had a couple scrambles and a couple sacks, so we’ve just got to give those guys some more opportunities to go out there and be who they are and make plays.”

In three of the Hilltoppers’ first six possessions, they lost or failed to pick up a yard on the first play. One possession started at the Louisville 1 after a botched punt attempt from the Cardinals, and another was the last play of the half. WKU started the second half with a 5-yard loss, and six times total they failed to gain a yard or lost yards on first down.

“Those are the things we’ve got to fix. We can’t get behind the chains and we’ve got to stay in front of the chains,” Helton said. “That really comes to me as a coach – especially me as an offensive coach – to be able to fix that.”

Helton said finding that rhythm will help create shots down the field to the team’s playmakers as well. Liberty allowed 28.1 points per game in last year’s 8-5 season – its second as an FBS team. It allowed 219.5 yards passing per game and 189.7 yards rushing per game.

“From the film we watched, from what I’ve seen, a lot of teams have gotten behind them, their DBs and safeties, and they’ve made a lot of big plays down field – the teams they played against,” Tinsley said Tuesday. “I feel like we’re going to take some chances down the field this week, something we didn’t do really last week. We’re going to air it out.”

“They like to come up and press a lot,” Burt said. “Shoot, I feel like we’ll take more shots this week and we’ll take advantage of our one-on-one opportunities.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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