Costly offensive mistakes left West Virginia trailing Army 14-10 at halftime in Thursday’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
Desperate to get things turned around, the Mountaineer coaches decided to make a change at quarterback.
Out went Jarret Doege, who had started the past 13 games for WVU, and in came Austin Kendall, the man Doege had replaced late in the 2019 season.
“The decision was kind of a combined decision between Sean Reagan, our quarterbacks coach, and Gerad Parker, our offense coordinator, and myself,” explained West Virginia head coach Neal Brown of the choice at halftime to make the change at QB. “Jarret has played very, very well all year, but for whatever reason, he didn’t see it (against Army).”
Doege completed 15 of 25 passes for 159 yards in the first half, but threw a bad interception when West Virginia was moving into Army territory in the first quarter. Then shortly before halftime, with the Mountaineers in front 10-7 and looking for more, the junior quarterback took a sack deep in his own end that also resulted in a fumble. The Black Knights turned that turnover into a TD and a 14-10 advantage two plays and seven yards later.
“Army did a really nice job of mixing it up, and we had two uncharacteristically bad turnovers,” noted Brown. “The interception was a play that really hurt us. And then we got the ball back after the fumble, and I didn’t think our response was very good there.”
Kendall came on in relief of Doege but not until the Black Knights had built a 21-10 lead by taking the first possession of the second half 73 yards in 13 plays for another touchdown.
“We decided we were going to start Austin in the second half,” stated Brown. “I think it should be noted he had practiced really well during bowl prep. Really for about the last six weeks, he has practiced well and we have confidence in him.
“I thought he came in in relief and did a nice job,’ WVU’s second-year coach said. “We had some drops, and that’s kind of plagued us throughout the year, but we made the plays we needed to.”
Those plays included a couple of lengthy Mountaineer marches that wound up in end zone via Kendall passes.
“Honestly, we work with both quarterbacks, so whoever is in the game, we don’t really take offense to whoever’s in the game,” said WVU senior receiver T.J. Simmons, who had a TD catch from each QB on Thursday. “We just want, as receivers, to do a good job and be where we are supposed to be and on time. If we do that, we know the quarterback is going to get to us things that they can do.”
Kendall’s 20-yard throw to Simmons with 5:10 left to play proved to be the game winner in West Virginia’s 24-21 victory Thursday in Memphis.
“He does a good job, and he knows when to use his feet. That just comes with experience,” Simmons said of the senior quarterback, who transferred to WVU in 2019 from Oklahoma. “There was one play where he pulled it. It was supposed to be a screen pass, but he took off and picked up a yard or two, and one play he was scrambling in the backfield and, and got back to the line of scrimmage. He does a good job of just using his feet and using his instincts to make plays on the field.”
Though Kendall had previously played in just one game during the 2020 season, completing three of six passes for 43 yards in WVU’s blowout of Eastern Kentucky in the opener, he certainly isn’t new to the quarterback position. He was West Virginia’s starting QB for the first nine games of 2019, completing 187 of 304 passes for 1,989 yards along the way.
Doege ultimately moved in front of Kendall on the quarterback depth chart, at least until Thursday when WVU was desperate for a spark. That’s when the Mountaineers turned to the Waxhaw, North Carolina, native who coolly, calmly came to the rescue.
“I really think I’m more excited for Austin than he is,” smiled Simmons. “He does a good job of just being a good man, a good teammate.
“He comes to work every day. He puts in extra work, regardless if he’s the starting quarterback or not.
“When (the coaches) came through and told us that (Kendall) was going to be the one leading us through the game in the second half, I was excited,” added Simmons. “I felt like with this man in his last game, he should get some time on the field. When he got in there and made some plays, it felt like last year. It was just natural with us. He was just making plays again.”
Kendall completed eight of his 17 passes in the second half for 121 yards. Two of them went for touchdowns, and none wound up in the hands of the Black Knights. That allowed the Mountaineers to leave Memphis with the AutoZone Liberty Bowl championship trophy.