In the run-up to Thursday’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl, West Virginia head coach Neal Brown noted Army, despite its conservative ground-oriented attack, was actually quite aggressive in its play. Citing its propensity to go for first down conversions (22-31 on the season), WVU’s second-year head coach clearly believed the Mountaineers needed to offset that aspect of the Black Knights’ mindset.
Brown’s approach didn’t mean WVU would begin bombing the ball deep downfield or blitz on every play. He didn’t make wild gambles on fourth down and long situations. He understood his team’s limitations, and didn’t try to do things that were out of character. However, he played with his own brand of controlled daring and aggression, using the mix of analytics and game situation analysis that have served him well during his career. In the process, he seized the initiative from Army, which was in a great position to win the game after taking a double-digit lead midway through the third quarter, and turned it into a Mountaineer win.
It started at halftime, during conversations with members of the offensive coaching staff. Brown made the decision to play backup QB Austin Kendall in relief of starter Jarret Doege, who had an average passing half but suffered a bad interception and a worse lack-of-ball-protection fumble that allowed Army to grab a 14-10 halftime lead.
“The decision was kind of a combined decision between Sean Reagan, our quarterbacks coach, and Gerad Parker, our offensive coordinator, and myself,” Brown said. “We decided we were going to start Austin in the second half.”
Replacing a QB isn’t the most unusual move in the world, but Kendall had not played since WVU’s opener three months ago, so it wasn’t a switch that might have been expected either.
With the senior backup at the controls, Brown made a second push. Faced with a fourth and two at Army’s 3-yard line and trailing 21-10 with some three minutes to go in the third quarter, Brown went for the touchdown rather than the field goal that would have closed the gap to one possession. Kendall and tight end Mike O’Laughlin covered the bet with a short scoring connection to make it 21-16.
Again pushing the envelope, Brown went for two, even though plenty of time and many scoring scenarios remained that would have made 21-17 an acceptable score. A muddle huddle alignment lef five Mountaineer blockers on four Army defenders in front of TJ Simmons, but he dropped the pass from Kendall that would have resulted in an easy walk-in.
WVU now had a bit of momentum, but Brown sensed the Mountaineers needed more. Noting that Army had kept the ball for eight minutes of the third quarter on its opening scoring drive, he felt the need to steal an extra possession, and did just that, ordering a Casey Legg onside kick that worked to perfection.
“We’ve been practicing it all week, and I hit it in the right spot,” Legg said afterward. “Alonzo (Addae) did a great job of getting on it. ”
Not every aggressive move results in great things, though, and this one didn’t yield immediate results. WVU went three and out on its next possession, and still trailed with two minutes to go in the third quarter. However, as Brown noted, the recovery and ensuing punt helped the Mountaineers with field position. The Black Knights started their next two possessions at their own 3- and 10-yard lines, and WVU followed the latter possession with its game-winning touchdown drive.
Just as likely, it reinforced the mindset that West Virginia would do anything it could to win the game – something that veteran players on the team didn’t get from previous bowl trips.
Brown capped WVU’s final score that with another two-point conversion attempt, and although it was a by-the-book decision, as WVU led by one point with 5:10 to go, the call was another aggressive beauty. The Mountaineers used Reese Smith on an end around, getting him into open space where he used his speed to outrun the Army defense to the end zone.
West Virginia has had its share of aggressive coaches in the past, so it’s not as if this collection of decisions stands out in Mountaineer annals as the most outlandish or risky. However, it was a an excellent demonstration of the way in which Brown uses his own mix to seize advantages in games. Without these calls, WVU would not have been toting the Liberty Bowl Trophy home.