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Liberty Bowl Football

West Virginia quarterback Jarrett Doege (2) throws a pass while under pressure from Army linebacker Nathaniel Smith (44) during the first half of the Liberty Bowl college football game in Memphis, Tenn., on Dec. 31.

When West Virginia’s home football finale against Oklahoma was postponed and eventually canceled, the Mountaineers’ senior day fell by the wayside as well.

Heading into Thursday’s Liberty Bowl against Army, WVU coach Neal Brown said part of the plan was to honor those seniors that didn’t get an opportunity to officially end their careers in Morgantown.

And while WVU came in treating the bowl game as a de facto senior day, several of those upperclassmen took it upon themselves to leave a lasting impression on the field in Memphis, Tennessee.

Some senior key players and others thrust unexpectedly into action made a difference in WVU’s 24-21 win over the Black Knights, making the Mountaineers’ rally and season-closing win even sweeter for all involved, including Brown.

“If you look at it, a lot of our glue guys, seniors that are finishing their careers, they played big roles in this and I think that’s special,” Brown said after the win. “That’s a memory for them that they’ll have for their entire life. That’s a happy locker room in there. That’s a locker room that has poured a ton into it and they need some time off.”

Mountaineer seniors came up huge on both sides of the ball. Wideout TJ Simmons, who announced officially in the postgame press conference that the Liberty Bowl was his final game, won the WVU offensive MVP award after making four catches for 56 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

That included a 20-yard touchdown reception from backup quarterback Austin Kendall with 5:10 remaining that provided the final margin. It capped a nice end to Simmons’ final campaign as he had 16 receptions for 253 yards and four touchdowns over the last four games.

Kendall, however, was more of a story. A transfer from Oklahoma and the starter for the first nine games last season, Kendall was benched in favor of Doege late last season and was named the backup this year.

But with Doege struggling in the first half against Army, including two costly turnovers, Kendall got his one last shot at redemption and didn’t waste it, engineering two second-half touchdown drives that proved to be just enough to get WVU (6-4) over the hump.

“I really think I’m more excited for Austin,” Simmons said. “He does a good job of being a good teammate to Doege. He helps him out whenever he sees something that Doege doesn’t see, he helps him out with that. He practices hard, he comes to work every day ready to work and ready to put the work in, he puts in extra work every day regardless if he’s the starting quarterback or not.

“When they came through and told us he was going to be the one leading us in the game in the second half I was excited. I felt like this being his last game he should get some time on the field, and when he got out there and made some plays it felt like last year.”

There was no shortage of defensive heroes of the senior variety either. To no one’s surprise, defensive tackle/nose guard Darius Stills wreaked havoc in the middle of Army’s offensive line, forcing the Black Knights to abandon dive plays for the most part and start pushing the run game to the perimeter.

Stills, WVU’s first first-team All-American since Tavon Austin in 2012, sat on the field in Memphis long after the game, taking in his final moments as a Mountaineer.

Another senior, linebacker Tony Fields who led WVU in tackles in the regular season, chose to opt out of the bowl game, and starting spear Tykee Smith missed it as well. Those absences, along with injuries sustained during the game, thrust several players into important roles.

Particularly, Bridgeport products Dylan Tonkery (11 tackles) and Dante Bonamico (10 tackles) made pivotal tackles down the stretch. Tonkery was listed as the starting mike linebacker before Fields took the starting role after the team’s season-opening win over Eastern Kentucky. He had made just eight tackles before the Liberty Bowl.

Bonamico was even more unsung, having only made six tackles previously and playing primarily on special teams.

“We lost three secondary members to head injuries and we’re not very deep in the secondary as well,” Brown said. “Bonamico hadn’t played a snap of safety in two years and he played half the third and the whole fourth quarter. We kind of pieced it together.”

The Mountaineers had a few goals heading into the Liberty Bowl, obviously starting with winning the game. WVU was able to check all the boxes, including honoring its senior class, which helped by honoring itself.

“We did a lot leading into this game to really honor those guys that had a total nontraditional senior year, and that wasn’t something they asked for so we tried to really honor those guys in the correct manner here finishing out,” Brown concluded.

Contact Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948 or ryan.pritt@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @RPritt.