(Neal Brown postgame Zoom conference)
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Austin Kendall started nine games at quarterback for the Mountaineers in 2019 but attempted just six passes this season. After Jarret Doege turned the ball over twice in the first half, Kendall entered for the first time since the season opener and rallied West Virginia back from an 11-point second half deficit to defeat Army 24-21 at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee.
The victory is West Virginia’s first in a bowl game since the 2015 season.
“I thought this game kind of mirrored 2020 in a lot of ways,” said WVU head 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.”
West Virginia dominated the run of play in the first quarter, outgaining the Black Knights 113-25. All they had to show for it however was a 3-0 lead after a 31-year field goal by Tyler Sumpter. Sumpter also missed from 37 yards earlier in the quarter. West Virginia receivers dropped five passes in the opening frame.
Army created the lone turnover in the first quarter. Javhari Boudreau intercepted Doege on third-and-12, returning it 21 yards to the WVU 46. The interception was the first for Doege since the Kansas game on October 17.
Army got on the scoreboard with a clinical 14-play, 74-yard drive that encompassed 7:12. They converted a fourth-and-4 near midfield and Tyhier Tyler went the final yard to cap the drive, giving Army a 7-3 lead.
West Virginia responded on their next possession. The Mountaineers needed a dozen plays to go 77 yards. Doege found T.J. Simmons on the goal line for a 5-yard scoring strike, giving WVU a 10-7 lead.
Disaster struck for the Mountaineers on their next possession. Doege was sacked by Malkelm Morrison and Ryan Duran recovered the fumble at the WVU 7-yard line. Tyler scored from six yards out two plays later, giving the Black Knights a 14-10 lead at halftime. Army was outgained 184-83 in the first half.
In true Army fashion, the Black Knights took exactly eight minutes off the third quarter clock on their opening possession of the second half. Tyler found the end zone for the third time on a 3-yard run to cap a 13-play, 75-yard march, all of the yards coming on the ground.
After completing 15-of-25 passes in the first half with two turnovers, Doege was replaced for the opening possession of the third quarter by Kendall. Kendall had not played since the season opener.
“Austin, I think it should be noted, has practiced really well,” Brown said. “During bowl prep and really for the past six weeks he has practiced really well and we have confidence in him.”
“One thing Kendall does a good job of is that he knows when to use his feet,” said Simmons. “That just comes with experience.”
Kendall promptly engineered a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive, finding Mike O’Laughlin in the end zone on a 3-yard pass on fourth-and-2. Kendall was 4-of-7 for 69 yards on the drive.
On the ensuing kickoff, Casey Legg’s onside kick was recovered by Alonzo Addae, giving the Mountaineers possession back at the Army 48-yard line. WVU however gained just two next yards on the next three plays and punted the ball away. Army held a 21-16 lead going into the fourth quarter.
After a pair of stops from the Army defense, WVU took the ball on their own 35-yard line with 8:30 to go. The Mountaineers converted on a pair of third downs thanks to a pass interference call drawn by Bryce Ford-Wheaton and later a 13-yard reception from Sam James on third-and-12. Kendall then hit Simmons on a 20-yards scoring strike to give the Mountaineers the lead. Reese Smith ran in the two-point conversation attempt, giving WVU a 24-21 lead.
Army drove 43 yards only to see a potential 39-yard game-tying field goal sail wide left with 1:50 to go. The Black Knights got the ball back but Josh Chandler-Semedo snuffed out their final drive with an interception with thirty seconds left.
The Mountaineers held Army (9-3) almost a hundred yards below their season rushing average. The Black Knights mustered just 182 yards on 59 attempts after averaging 281 yards per game during the regular season.
“Everybody did a good job getting us familiar with the offense and getting us constant looks,” Chandler-Semedo said. “We probably repped Army 100, 200, 300 times rep-wise. We saw the plays and we knew exactly what we were going to get.”
“We tried to play our base defense,” Brown said. “We didn’t try to recreate the wheel in about nine days. It just wasn’t going to be possible.”
Kendall completed 8-of-17 passes for 121 yards and two scores.
Simmons was named the offensive player of the game in his final game as a Mountaineer. He caught 4 passes for 56 yards and a pair of scores. Chandler-Semedo was WVU’s defensive player of the game. He had a team-best 13 stops. In addition to his interception, he also had a forced fumble.
Leddie Brown eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on the season, toting the ball 20 times for 65 yards.
Arizona transfer Scottie Young made his WVU debut, collecting four tackles.
Bridgeport High School graduates Dylan Tonkery and Dante Bonamico combined for 21 stops.
“Bonamico hadn’t played a snap at safety in two years. And he played half of the third and the whole fourth quarter,” Brown said.
“I’ve been with Tonk(ery) these last three years,” said Chandler-Semedo. “Playing next to Tonk has been phenomenal. This was probably his best game. He definitely played his best football in his senior year, easily.”
In his final game as a Mountaineer, Fairmont Senior graduate Darius Stills made three tackles.
The Mountaineers (6-4) will open the 2021 season at Maryland on September 4.