As the waning hours of 2020 ran down, WVU finally found a way to overcome the mistakes that haunted it all year long — albeit behind a backup quarterback.
Austin Kendall led a pair of second-half touchdown drives in relief of starter Jarret Doege and it was enough to trump a plethora of dropped passes and a largely ineffective running game to rally past a hard-nosed Army squad in a 24-21 victory at the Liberty Bowl Thursday in Memphis, Tennessee.
A 20-yard scoring connection from Kendall to TJ Simmons with 5:10 to go in the fourth quarter gave WVU the lead and, paired with a missed 39-yard field goal by Army and a final WVU defensive stand, it was enough to send the Mountaineers on their way. West Virginia finished the 2020 season with a 6-4 record.
“I thought this game kind of mirrored 2020 in a lot of ways, so a fitting way to close out the year,” said WVU coach Neal Brown. “It wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it was gritty, and I thought it was really important for our guys to finish in the right way.”
Doege threw an interception in the first half and, with the Mountaineers leading 10-7 late in the second quarter, committed the cardinal sin in fumbling deep in WVU territory. Army recovered at the Mountaineer 7-yard line and quarterback Tyhier Tyler ran it in from 6 yards out two plays later to put the Black Knights up 14-10 at halftime.
Riding that momentum, Army (9-3) took the opening kick of the third quarter and marched 75 yards in 13 plays, eating up eight minutes of clock. After Tyler carried it in from 2 yards out for his third touchdown of the game, Army led 21-10.
When West Virginia took over after the ensuing kick, it was Kendall who trotted out onto the field, and he immediately sparked a mostly dormant WVU offense. The Mountaineers went 80 yards in 10 plays, with Mike O’Laughlin hauling in a 3-yard pass from Kendall for a touchdown. A 2-point conversion try was no good and the Black Knights’ lead was trimmed to 21-16 with 3:23 remaining in the third quarter.
From there, a WVU defense that stood tall all day with the exception of two long touchdown drives kept the Mountaineers afloat. Outside of Army’s march to begin the second half and another over the first and second quarters that covered 74 yards in 14 plays, Army netted just 111 yards on eight drives. That included just 86 after Tyler’s third and final touchdown plunge to open the half.
Still, with catchable balls falling to the turf and Leddie Brown and the WVU running game being stuffed for the most part, the Liberty Bowl had all the signatures of a 2020 WVU loss. That was until Kendall, an Oklahoma transfer and starter of nine games last season, came up with a fairy-tale ending to his final chapter in a Mountaineer uniform.
WVU was helped by a pass-interference call on a third-and-8 to start the drive, and then Kendall hit Sam James for 14 yards on a third-and-12 to get to the Army 38. A pair of throws to Bryce Ford-Wheaton gave West Virginia a first-and-10 at the 20 and Kendall floated a ball to a wide-open Simmons in the back corner of the end zone to put WVU on top and eventually account for the final score.
“Jarret has played very, very well all year but he just for whatever reason didn’t see it well,” Neal Brown said. “Austin has practiced really well during bowl prep and really for about the last six weeks and we have confidence in him. I thought he came in in relief and did a nice job.
“I think it’s a good story in the fact that I thought over the last two months of the season he handled adversity really well, had a good attitude, was fun to coach and when his number was called, made the most of it.”
While WVU’s offensive struggles reared their ugly heads again, the defense also turned in a performance much more in line with what it had done before the Mountaineers’ 42-6 loss at Iowa State on Dec. 5. Against Army’s vaunted triple-option, West Virginia allowed just 239 total yards and limited the Black Knights to 3.1 yards per rush.
Early, WVU’s tandem of Darius and Dante Stills walled up the middle, forcing Army to start attacking the perimeter in the second quarter. The Black Knights found success there and even more so early in the third, but it was something Neal Brown and his staff eventually shored up.
Then there was West Virginia’s own absences. Leading tackler Tony Fields opted out of the game and spear Tykee Smith, a third-team Associated Press All-American didn’t play after having what Brown called an “accident.” Senior safety Sean Mahone was also injured early in the first half.
That forced players like Dante Bonamico, typically just a special teams ace, into action, and he had 10 tackles.
Facing an attack completely different than the norm in the Big 12 and a bit short-handed, Neal Brown said he was proud of the preparation job the defensive coaches did and of the adjustments they had to make on the fly.
“A ton of it was on the fly honestly,” the WVU coach said. “We tried to play our base defense, we didn’t try to recreate the wheel in nine days here, it just wasn’t going to be possible.
“We basically practiced last Tuesday and Wednesday, came back and then had a traditional game week. We practiced seven times and only one of those was in shoulder pads. I thought with that minimum our staff did a nice job adjusting.”
The Mountaineers averaged just 64 rushing yards per game in their four losses coming in while running for 210.6 yards per contest in the five previous wins. On Thursday, WVU totaled just 42 rushing yards with everyone outside of Leddie Brown (20 carries for 65 yards) combining to go for minus-23 yards on seven carries.
Kendall finished 8 of 17 for 121 yards while Doege was 15 for 25 for 159 yards with a touchdown and a pick, all in the first half. Simmons was on the receiving end of Doege’s touchdown throw as well and led the Mountaineers in his final game with 56 yards on four catches.
Tyler ran for 76 yards on 24 carries for Army, which was without several key players who were held out of the game. The Black Knights were without five starters, including will linebacker Jon Rhattigan, who earned second-team All-American honors by USA Today. Starters Jeremiah Lowery and Daryan McDonald were also missing from the Black Knights defense while starting running back Tyrell Robinson, starting left tackle Luke McCleery, backup left tackle Jordyn Law, backup center Connor Bishop and third-string full back Jakobi Buchanan also didn’t play.