West Virginia Wins Liberty Bowl
In an unconventional finish for an unconventional year, West Virginia wins the Liberty Bowl over Army. After scrambling to put together a full schedule after most conferences canceled most, or all, non-conference games, Army posted a strong nine-win season. After dealing with a rescheduled, and ultimately canceled, game, the Mountaineers ended their regular season on a sour note, reeling after a loss to Iowa State and without a night to properly celebrate the seniors. Before the game, fans heard that tensions were high in Morgantown. Considering the way the team had to organize to get through testing and distancing protocols, some measure of added frustration would be expected. Yet the Mountaineers, playing their backup quarterback through the entire second half, did something they had not done since 2015: win a bowl game.
Army Does What Army Does
All season, Army has played fundamentally sound defense. The unit applied plenty of pressure and forced plenty of turnovers. In the first half, they did just that. They gave up yards, to be sure. Those yards, however, mean little without points. They held West Virginia to just 10 in the first half after forcing two turnovers.
Predictably, Army threw just two passes in the first half, both by Christian Anderson, and both designed mostly to clear the box. Considering Army had only run for around 70 yards in the first half, that was necessary. Then, to start the second half, we saw a traditional Black-Knight-drive. Pushing out to a 21-10 lead, Army took eight minutes off the clock with a 16-play, 90-yard drive. Every single play of that drive came on the ground.
Mountaineers’ Offense Struggles in First Half
For his flaws, this season, junior quarterback Jarret Doege has been careful with the football. He threw only three interceptions, after all. But Doege threw an interception in the first quarter, and he fumbled late in the second quarter. The fumble set Army up for a rare quick touchdown. They covered seven yards in two plays to earn their second touchdown of the game. Doege was unable to lead a drive to end the half.
West Virginia also missed a field goal on their opening drive. As a result, despite piling up over 280 yards in the first half, the Mountaineers entered the locker room down 14-10. After Army’s opening drive of the second half, the Mountaineers went down 21-10, a tough obstacle to overcome against a clock-controlling Army team.
Austin Kendall Overcomes Doubts
As it stood, with seven minutes left in the third quarter, the result seemed clear: West Virginia was about to lose its fourth straight bowl game. Head Coach Neal Brown, however, had different ideas. He asked oft-maligned Austin Kendall to take over the reins of the offense in the second half. The result? Kendall led West Virginia to a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped by a T.J. Simmons touchdown reception.
West Virginia, however, was unable to take advantage of the ensuing onside kick that they recovered. They punted on two straight drives. In the middle of the fourth quarter, however, Kendall led another touchdown drive, connecting again with Simmons for a score. Reese Smith ran in for a two-point conversion, giving the Mountaineers a 24-21 lead with about five minutes left in the game.
West Virginia Defense Holds
After a special team’s mistake that gave Army that ball at their own 35 (a kick out of bounds), Army covered ground with a 32-yard pass from Anderson. The Mountaineer defense, however, held Army’s rushing attack off and forced them to kick a 39-yard field goal to try and knot the game. Army missed that field goal. West Virginia followed with a three-and-out designed simply to force Army to take all three of its timeouts to get the ball with just over a minute left.
West Virginia surrendered a quick first down, but they forced two incompletions before Josh Chandler-Semedo ended the game with an interception. In total, West Virginia held Army to just 239 total yards (Army’s fewest on the season), and 182 on the ground. Outside of the 90-yard drive to open the second half, the Mountaineers surrendered just 149 yards.
West Virginia Ends Bowl Losing Streak
Regardless of any drama leading up to or occurring during the game, West Virginia wins the Liberty Bowl over Army. Like that, they ended their three-game losing streak in bowls. Coach Brown extended his own bowl-winning streak to four games. Given the losing streak (and 2-5 bowl record under former Head Coach Dana Holgorsen), Mountaineer fans certainly welcome the change.
We predicted a Mountaineer win by a single score. We did not think that win would come with the theatrics that it did. Similarly, we did not imagine this would be a coming-out party for Kendall who appears to be leaving Morgantown after this season. That said, we did predict that Kendall would be an offensive surprise player for West Virginia this season. So we will take that unexpected victory.
The Mountaineers finish Brown’s second season with a 6-4 record. The winning percentage (60%) significantly eclipsed the team’s win percentage from Brown’s first season (42%). Before the season, Coach Brown predicted incremental improvement over the next few seasons. His team certainly took a positive step forward this year. Now, we simply wait and see what happens in 2021.