A strong defensive effort and a backup quarterback led West Virginia’s football squad to a come-from-behind victory over Army in the 2020 AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis.
Trailing 21-10 midway through the third period, Austin Kendall relieved a struggling Jarret Doege at quarterback for the Mountaineers. Kendall guided WVU on a pair of second half touchdown drives, and West Virginia’s defense held the Black Knights without points on their final four possessions of the game.
All that combined to lift the Mountaineers to a 24-21 victory Thursday at the soggy Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
The win snapped West Virginia’s three-game bowl losing streak and allowed WVU to finish the season with a 6-4 record.
Atmosphere – West Virginia had been fortunate this football season when it came to weather. All of its nine regular season contests were played on warm, or at least ‘football weather’ dry days. That wasn’t the case in Memphis, though, as Thursday was cold and wet in the city that is Home of the Blue. There was never a driving rain, and Memphis wasn’t blanketed in the snow like Morgantown has been for most of the past couple weeks, but the weather western Tennesse was far from perfect and could have been an excuse for WVU’s 10 dropped passes. Area health officials allowed a maximum crowd of 13,000, but there were far fewer than that (8,187) in the 61,008-seat facility. Thursday’s event just didn’t have a bowl game feel, as the teams arrived in Memphis the day before the contest and left immediately after it concluded. A win was a nice way for West Virginia to cap off its season, but anyone who enjoys college football – or most any other aspect of normal life – will be thrilled to see 2020 in his/her rearview mirror. Grade D
Offense – With just 42 rushing yards, a pair of costly first half turnovers and 10 dropped passes, there were plenty of negatives from West Virginia’s offense during the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. But give the Mountaineers’ backup quarterback Austin Kendall a big plus, as he took over in the second half for the struggling Jarret Doege and led the Mountaineers on two lengthy TD drives. Those scores allowed WVU to overcome a 21-10 deficit and pull out the victory. Kendall wasn’t perfect, as he completed less than half his passes in his two quarters of action (8 of 17 for 121 yards), but came up big on a fourth-and-goal pass to Mike O’Laughlin late in the third quarter to give West Virginia some momentum and then finished the comeback by leading WVU on an eight-play, 65-yard fourth-quarter drive that finished with a 20-yard pass to T.J. Simmons for the game winner. The thing Kendall did best was he didn’t make any critical mistakes, which Doege certainly did with a pair of first half turnovers on an interception and then a fumble. It’s the first time WVU has won this season when it’s rushed for less than 130 yards, as Army often shot gaps in the Mountaineer offensive line to spill West Virginia’s runner for little or no gain. Because of Kendall’s performance, though, WVU was able to overcome its many offensive issue and host the bowl championship trophy at game’s end. Grade C
Defense – Playing against Army’s flex bone offense, a scheme the Mountaineers haven’t faced in many years, you could have forgiven West Virginia’s defense if it struggled in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. With only 10 days to prepare for a unique ground-based attack, WVU still did an outstanding job of limiting the Black Knights to just 182 rushing yards. That’s 99 below Army’s average, which at 281.3 yards per game heading to Memphis was the fourth best mark in all college football this season. The final 182-yard total also tied for the third fewest by the 9-3 Black Knights this season, as they had 182 vs. Cincinnati, 153 vs. The Citadel and 134 vs. Navy. Army did put together two lengthy drives – a 14-play, 74-yard march and another of 13 plays for 75 yards. Both wound up in the end zone for TDs. But the Mountaineer defense, which was severely hampered by opt-outs (linebacker Tony Fields and nose tackle Quay Mays), pre- and in-game illness/injuries (defensive backs Tykee Smith, Sean Mahone, Dreshun Miller and Jake Long, as well as linebacker Exree Loe), forced Army to earn everything the hard way. Other than a 13-yard scramble by Black Knight quarterback Christian Anderson, none of Army’s 58 other rushing attempts went for more than eight yards. Playing in their final game for their home state program, linebacker Dylan Tonkery (a career-high 11 tackles) and nose tackle Darius Stills (credited with just three tackles but he impacted many, many more plays), helped lead an effort that is worthy of the nation’s fourth best defense (291.4 total yards per game allowed this season). Grade A-
Special teams – A missed 37-yard field goal by Tyler Sumpter on the opening drive of the game was a bad way for WVU’s special teams – and really the entire squad – to start, but the Mountaineer special teams units settled down after that and performed fairly well. The gutsy onside kick West Virginia coach Neal Brown called late in the third quarter, which was executed perfectly by kicker Casey Legg and recovered by Alonzo Addae, should have been a huge spark, but the Mountaineer offense couldn’t take advantage of that potential game-changer. WVU also had two innovative two-point conversion tries, though only one actually crossed the goal line, as a dropped pass from a muddle-huddle set ruined the other. Grade B
Coaching – If not for a couple issues that have plagued the Mountaineers at other points this season – an inconsistent rushing offense and a rash of dropped passes – it would have been hard to find any fault in West Virginia’s coaching for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Most of WVU’s coaching decisions were admirable. The onside kick was perfectly timed and the two-point conversion plays were very innovative. The most impressive part of the Mountaineers’ coaching performance, though, came on the defensive side where West Virginia’s staff didn’t try to re-invent the wheel despite facing a offensive scheme from Army that is always hard to handle and having minimal time to prepare for it. WVU didn’t try to get overly fancy; it stayed with its base scheme and let its superior players, especially Darius and Dante Stills, wreak havoc on the Black Knight front line. Often the best coaching decisions are to not overly complicated things, and that’s exactly what West Virginia’s defensive staff did in the 2020 AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Grade B+