Senior Austin Kendall came off the bench to throw two second-half touchdown passes to lead West Virginia to a come-from behind, 24-21 victory over Army in the 62nd annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee.
Kendall, who played in just one other game this season, completed 8-of-17 passes for 121 yards and touchdowns of 3 yards to tight end Mike O’Laughlin and 20 yards to T.J. Simmons.
“Jarret (Doege) just wasn’t seeing it; they were mixing their coverages up and going zero and dropping eight – and he had a really bad last two series, and I just felt like Austin might give as a little spark, and he did,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said.
“I’m happy for him. He’s had a great attitude, and he did a really good job, and I’m proud of him,” added Brown, who evens his record to 11-11 at West Virginia.
West Virginia’s defense limited the Black Knights to only 182 yards rushing on 59 attempts, just 3.1 yards per rush.
At halftime, Army’s 14 points were the product of only 83 yards of total offense and West Virginia’s numerous offensive miscues.
Doege threw an interception, was plagued by several dropped passes and then made a critical error late in the second quarter when he was sacked by Malkeim Morrison and fumbled, which was recovered by Ryan Duren III at the West Virginia 7.
Three plays later, Army had its second touchdown when Tyhier Tyler squeezed in from the 6 with 1:14 remaining in the half.
Tyler also scored Army’s first touchdown on its third possession of the game, that one from the 1.
West Virginia (6-4) took the game’s opening kickoff and marched to the Army 20 where the drive eventually stalled. Tyler Sumpter came in to try a 37-yard field goal attempt, but his kick landed short and to the right of the cross bar.
WVU’s second offensive possession lasted just four plays when Javhari Bourdeau intercepted Doege. However, Army was unable to do anything with the football on that possession and punted the ball back to West Virginia.
The Mountaineers took over at their own 38 and a Doege 28-yard pass to Sean Ryan got the ball to the Black Knight 17. Two incomplete passes and a short completion to Ryan led to another Sumpter field goal try, this one successful from 31 yards.
West Virginia’s only touchdown of the first half came as the result of a 12-play, 77-yard march that included a couple of Doege first-down completions to Sam Brown and a lofting 18-yard hookup to Winston Wright Jr. down the far sideline that took the ball to the Army 5.
Two plays later, Doege connected with Simmons running toward the nearside pylon for a 5-yard touchdown.
West Virginia looked to be in trouble at the outset of the third quarter when the Black Knights took the kickoff and drove 75 yards in 13 plays, all of it on the ground. The key play was Tyler’s 4-yard run on third and 4 at the WVU 19 to keep the drive alive.
Four plays later, Tyler crossed the West Virginia goal line once again from the 2, and Quinn Maretzki’s conversion kick gave the Black Knights a 21-10 lead.
Here, Kendall entered the game and immediately ignited the offense with a 27-yard completion to Bryce Ford-Wheaton to give the Mountaineers a first down at the 48.
Another Kendall pass, a lofting 31-yarder to Simmons, got the ball to the Black Knight 11. Faced with a fourth and goal at the Army 2, Kendall flipped a soft pass out to a wide-open O’Laughlin toward the corner of the end zone for West Virginia’s second touchdown of the game.
Kendall’s two-point conversion pass, a screen to Simmons, was dropped.
Two exchanges of punts gave West Virginia possession of the football again with 8:17 left and the ball at its own 35. A pass interference penalty on Army gave the Mountaineers a fresh set of downs at the Black Knight 48.
Two plays later and facing a third and 14, Kendall calmly stepped up in the pocket and fired a strike to Sam James over the middle for a first down to the Army 38. Kendall followed with pair of completions to Ford-Wheaton totaling 18 yards to move the football to the Army 20.
Then, Kendall dropped back to throw a pretty strike to a wide-open Simmons running to the nearside pylon.
The two-point conversion, a nifty reverse to Reese Smith, was successful to give WVU a 24-21 lead.
“(Brown), at halftime, said I needed to step up and make something happen for us so I was able to go out there and trust my guys and trust what the coaches have done for me and what they’ve done to prepare us for this game,” Kendall said during the MSN from IMG Learfield College postgame radio show.
Kendall’s only other game action came in mop-up duty against Eastern Kentucky four months ago.
“We were actually getting ready to go out there and I looked at (teammate) Kyle Poland and said, ‘Damn, I haven’t played in about 10 games,” he laughed. “But it’s just a week-by-week thing and you’ve got to prepare just like the other guys.”
Army (9-3) marched 43 yards to the West Virginia 22 where the Black Knights were confronted with a fourth and 3. Army coach Jeff Monken opted to bring on Maretzki to tie the game, but he hooked his 39-yard attempt.
West Virginia was unable to run out the clock, but it did manage to force Army to burn all three of its timeouts, leaving the Black Knights with only 1:22 remaining to move the ball into position to tie or win the game.
Backup quarterback Christian Anderson completed one pass to Cole Caterbone for 6 yards and ran 13 yards to move the ball to midfield, but his second completion was to West Virginia linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo on fourth and 7 with 29 seconds left on the clock.
The Mountaineers took a knee to run off the remaining time, ending West Virginia’s streak of three straight bowl losses.
“This is only the second bowl game we’ve won in the Big 12 now, against a really gritty team on short notice,” Brown pointed out. “It’s huge and great momentum going into 2021, and I’m proud of everybody involved with our program.”
West Virginia’s second bowl victory since joining the Big 12 in 2012 continued the conference’s unblemished record in bowl games this year with just one remaining when Iowa State faces Oregon Saturday in the Fiesta Bowl.
Brown is now 4-0 in bowl games, including a 3-0 mark during his four-year tenure at Troy.
For West Virginia, it was the program’s 16th bowl victory in 38 all-time appearances, and the Mountaineers remained unbeaten in New Year’ Eve bowl games, adding today’s victory to wins in the 1975 Peach Bowl (13-10 over NC State), 1982 Peach Bowl (26-6 over Florida) and 1984 Bluebonnet Bowl (31-14 over TCU). It was also the Mountaineers’ second win against Army in a four-game series that was last played in 1961.
Doege passed for 159 yards on the first half, giving WVU’s two quarterbacks a combined 280 yards and three touchdowns on 23 completions.
West Virginia’s ground game struggled mightily against Army’s nationally ranked run defense, gaining just 42 yards on 27 attempts. However, Leddie Brown finished with 65 on 20 carries to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
Brown came into today’s game needing 55 yards and ended the season with 1,005 in just 10 games. He becomes the 27th player in school history to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season.
Simmons led West Virginia with four catches for 56 yards and two touchdowns and was named game MVP. Ford-Wheaton also caught four passes for 51 yards, while Ryan added four grabs for 48 yards.
It was West Virginia’s first win away from Milan Puskar Stadium this season. Another interesting fact of note, today’s win was just the second in Liberty Bowl history when the winning team failed to rush for at least 50 yards. Iowa State also did it in its 2017 victory over Memphis.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we got the win, and it gives us some momentum heading into the offseason,” Brown said.
Tyler was Army’s top ground gainer with 76 yards on 24 attempts.
Anderson attempted all six passes for the Black Knights, completing four for 57 yards.
Chandler-Semedo led the WVU defense with 10 solo tackles for the game, the seventh-most in Liberty Bowl history.