2020 Liberty Bowl Preview
Not surprisingly, a 2020 college football season marred, like most anything else, by a worldwide pandemic saw plenty of confusion in lining up bowl matchups. Initially, the bowl selection committees overlooked a strong 9-2 Army team entirely, leaving them out of the initial slate. The Liberty Bowl, adhering to its conference affiliations, invited both the West Virginia Mountaineers and the three-win Tennessee Volunteers. But, under active investigation by the NCAA for recruiting infractions and with a COVID outbreak on the team, the Volunteers dropped out of the bowl. After a few hours and an exhilarating flurry of tweets, the Liberty Bowl found their replacement in Army. Now, Army faces West Virginia. Here is our 2020 Liberty Bowl preview.
The Broad Brushstrokes
The Liberty Bowl matchup offers plenty of fanfare. Army is, well, Army, and it was troubling (and disrespectful) that the nation’s premier military academy was left out of the initial bowl slate despite claiming a 9-2 record. But when the powers-that-be at West Point announced they would be happy to fill in for the Volunteers, West Virginia Head Coach Neal Brown promptly responded simply, “We are game!” Within hours, the matchup became official.
The Black Knights have not faced the West Virginia Mountaineers since 1961, a 7-3 win by WVU. Army won the other two meetings between the teams, in 1941 and 1946 (when Army last claimed a National Championship).
The Black Knights have won four straight bowl games, and all three such games under Head Coach Jeff Monken. Army fans hope to continue that streak. On the other hand, the Mountaineers have lost three straight bowl games, all under former Head Coach Dana Holgorsen. West Virginia fans hope that Brown hits the reset button on Mountaineers’ bowl fortunes.
The 2020 Liberty Bowl kicks off at 4:00 on New Year’s Eve. ESPN will televise the event. As of this writing, the Mountaineers are favored by seven. Vegas has dropped the over/under since betting opened, and that now sits at 41.5.
Army offers a difficult matchup for most teams. The Black Knights remain one of only a small handful of teams that continue to run the triple option. As a result, defensive coordinators who rarely see the base offense have trouble scheming for it. And Army runs that offense well under Monken.
The Triple Option Offense
In a pass-heavy era, then, the Black Knight’s stat line looks, well, different. They have thrown only 70 passes in 11 games, completing only 31. They average 43.6 passing yards a game. Army’s loss to Cincinnati inflates those numbers. They threw 21 times for 90 yards when playing from behind against Cincinnati. On the other hand, Army has run the ball 657 times (60 rushes per game) and average 281.3 rushing yards per game.
The Black Knights feature eight players with more than 20 carries. Tyhier Tyler leads the backfield with 115 carries for 502 yards. Jakobi Buchanan adds 111 carries and 474 yards. Quarterback Christian Anderson adds 90 carries for 398 yards. These three combine for 12 rushing touchdowns. Sandon McCoy leads Army with 10 rushing touchdowns.
Predictably, only two Army players eclipse 100 receiving yards. Tyrell Robinson, who is the team’s most efficient rusher piling up just over seven yards per carry, racked up 117 yards on 6 catches. Michael Roberts adds 106 yards on 7 receptions.
Defensively, Army plays fundamentally sound. They surrender only 14 points per game and hold opponents to 150 passing yards and 120 rushing yards. These numbers benefit, of course, from Army’s reliance on the run, as Army controls the time of possession by holding the ball for an average of eight more minutes than their opponents.
Linebacker Jon Rhattigan leads the defense with 78 tackles and nine tackles for loss. Rhattigan adds two interceptions and one pick-six to his totals. Linebacker Arik Smith also adds 71 tackles (seven for loss) and a team-leading three-and-a-half sacks. Jabari Moore leads the secondary with three interceptions and one pick-six. Overall, the unit brings pressure from various spots.
Previewing West Virginia
The 5-4 Mountaineers have not faced a triple-option team since 2015 when they faced Georgia Southern (a couple of seasons after Monken left to coach Army). Relying heavily on the 3-3 stack, West Virginia shut Georgia Southern out, winning the game 44-0. Georgia Southern was in just its second year in FBS. Army represents a far more difficult matchup as a result.
Under Coach Brown, the Mountaineers rely on a balanced offensive attack that leans only slightly in favor of the pass (52% to 48%). Signal caller Jarret Doege has shown some flaws, particularly on the deep ball. But he has also protected the ball well and played efficiently, completing 64% of his passes (despite plenty of dropped passes by his receivers) and throwing only three interceptions to 13 touchdowns.
Leddie Brown leads the backfield with 945 yards on 179 carries. Brown adds 202 yards on 31 receptions. He racked up 11 total touchdowns (nine on the ground) through nine games. Winston Wright leads West Virginia with 45 receptions and 528 yards. Both Bryce Ford-Wheaton and T.J. Simmons, the latter of whom came on strong late in the season, add over 300 receiving yards each.
Defensively, West Virginia has been solid in all but one game this season (a lopsided loss to Iowa State). They surrender just 20 points per game and hold opponents to 290 yards per game. The Mountaineers will miss star linebacker Tony Fields, who indicated he would not participate in the team’s bowl game. But they also have plenty of talent elsewhere. In fact, the NCAA recently granted Arizona transfer safety Scottie Young eligibility to play in the bowl game. We anticipate that Young will line up at linebacker plenty during the game to help offset the loss of Fields.
Both Tykee Smith and Darius Stills have appeared on a few All-American lists this month, and we expect they will appear on a few more. Both will play pivotal roles against Army. While Smith is one of the best cover safeties in the nation, he also finds himself in the backfield plenty, racking up eight tackles for loss.
Around them, the Mountaineers will rotate Dante Stills, Akheem Mesidor, Josh Chandler-Semedo, Jared Bartlett, and VanDarius Cowan. To be sure, West Virginia’s defense has struggled against mobile quarterbacks all season. But most of the big runs resulted from opposing offenses spreading the defense to the boundaries, leaving wide gaps between the hash marks.
Army does not do that as often or as effectively, and West Virginia does not have to respect the pass as much (in the rare event he throws, Anderson completes just 39% of his passes and has three interceptions to one touchdown). As a result, the Mountaineers’ defensive integrity depends almost entirely on how well they stick to assignments. The unit swarms well to the ball, so they present a difficult matchup for Army.
Liberty Bowl Preview: The Prediction
We doubt that this game becomes lopsided in either team’s favor. Indeed, on the betting front, we would take the under. We think the spread will be a push and would avoid that bet. Both teams will look to control the clock, and that favors a closely-fought contest. In the end, though, we believe that West Virginia’s defense will find their gaps well. And we think the Mountaineer offense will do just enough to spread the Black Knights. In a closely fought contest, we see West Virginia prevailing 21-14.