Tyson Helton

WKU coach Tyson Helton shouts instructions during his team's 2019 matchup against Louisville.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Compared to the emotional roller-coaster of the past couple of months, the WKU football team will begin its second season under coach Tyson Helton facing relatively little pressure or uncertainty as it prepares for its delayed 2020 opener.

Helton returns 16 seniors, plus a graduate quarterback with starting experience in Maryland transfer Tyrrell Pigrome, who will get the nod when the Hilltoppers visit Louisville to open the season at 8 p.m Saturday.

WKU players watched along with everyone else as the Big Ten and Pac-12 canceled their fall seasons, then watched other Group of 5 leagues do the same. They saw the ACC announce a move to conference only play, plus one more game, then saw a C-USA rival, Old Dominion, shut its athletics department down for the fall.

But the WKU season began to take shape when the Southeastern Conference announced it would compete in-conference only this season, leaving Louisville with one available non-conference slot, and the Hilltoppers got the nod, in the season-opener no less.

“There was so much uncertainty,” Helton said. “And we made it through all that turmoil and finally got into fall camp and every week that went by you felt a little more normal in terms of trying to play a football game. And then it was great to see last weekend and this weekend teams actually play, starting with some of the high school football games, and those went well, and a couple of college games. And we got to see a lot of college games this weekend and it was just great to feel normal and get an opportunity to watch all that. And now it’s our turn, and we get to go out and be a part of that.”

Obviously, playing an FBS in-state opponent is a big deal for WKU, and it’s a deal the Hilltoppers have made the most of over the years. They beat Kentucky in 2012 and again in 2013. They probably should’ve beaten the Cardinals in a 20-17 loss in 2018.

A year ago, WKU lost to Louisville 38-21 in Nashville, but then reeled off four straight victories, the first of two four-game winning streaks in what wound up being an 8-5 season. Last season began with a loss, and you can’t overestimate the deflation in the stadium in Bowling Green as FCS opponent rallied back from a deficit to with 35-28. Helton, however, was calm after the game. And WKU’s eventual success last season shows that its how you end, not how you begin, that people remember.

That has been his message to his team this week, and to his new quarterback.

“I talk to him and continue to talk to the team, you guys have heard me say this, it’s not about your first game it’s about your continual body of work,” Helton said. “Whether we win or lose this first game, you know, we’re going to wake up the next morning and go to work and get ready for the next one. That’s the demeanor you have to take. So he’s not judged on anything other than his whole body of work and hopefully he knows that and doesn’t put too much pressure on himself.”

At the same time, Pigrome has played in some big games, as have a good many WKU players. The team established a running identity behind Gaej Walker and a solid offensive line after the opening third of last season, and Pigrome will only accentuate that with his ability as a run-pass threat.

Defensively, WKU has the ability to pressure the quarterback with C-USA player of the year DeAngelo Malone commanding double-team attention from opposing offenses.

The Hilltoppers, depending on which rankings you look at, are squarely in the middle of the pack in terms of difficulty of opponent on Louisville’s reworked 2020 schedule. And though the game is in Louisville, the limit of 12,000 fans imposed by the state as a COVID-19 restriction should lessen the home-field factor considerably.

From a health standpoint, WKU has lost redshirt senior linebacker Clay Davis to a torn ACL, but otherwise Helton said, “I’d say we’re in a good spot ... As far as all the pieces to the puzzle that we’re counting on, I feel like we’re in a pretty good spot.”

Regardless of opponent, Helton said the Hilltoppers are ready — and grateful for the opportunity.

“It means a lot to us,” he said. “... Particularly getting to play against a really good opponent like Louisville. For us to be able to go up there and get a win against them would be huge. That’s the goal. That’s what the mission is. Our kids will play their butts off to try to make that happen. But win or lose we’ll get back to work to get ready for the next one. But I couldn’t think of a better way to start a season, with the pageantry of college football and everything we’ve gone through with COVID in the 2020 so far, to get the opportunity to play football in a great stadium against a great opponent and see if we can go get one.”

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