College Football

West Virginia downs Army 24-21 in AutoZone Liberty Bowl

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West Virginia wide receiver T.J. Simmons hauls in a touchdown pass during Thursday’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

West Virginia Mountaineers Quarterback Austin Kendall threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Simmons with 5:10 left in the fourth quarter to seal the victory over the Army Black Knights 24-21 on Thursday in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in front of 8,187 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis.

This was a bowl game that almost didn’t happen.

Army was supposed to play in the Independence Bowl, but the game was canceled Sunday after numerous teams decided to opt out of postseason play. This left the Black Knights eligible for a bowl game but without an opponent to play.

However, on Monday, it was announced that Tennessee, which was supposed to play in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, was forced to cancel because of multiple positive COVID-19 tests among the players and coaching staff. This allowed the Black Knights to fill the vacancy and allowed Thursday’s game to happen.

The game began with occasional rain showers and an overcast sky, the temperature struggling to reach the 40-degree mark. Army won the toss and elected to defer.

Facing 4th down and nine yards to go on the Black Knights 20 yard line, the Mountaineers opening drive ended on a 37-yard field goal attempt by kicker Tyler Sumpter which went wide to the right.

Army went three and out with three consecutive runs by quarterback Tyhier Tyler who failed to get a first down, which set up the second possession by West Virginia.

Mountaineers quarterback Jarret Doege immediately threw to T.J. Banks for a 20-yard completion at midfield. Three plays later, Doege’s pass was picked off by Javhari Bourdeau and returned for 21 yards to give the Black Knights good field possession at the West Virginia 46 yard line with 6:16 remaining in the first quarter.

The Mountaineers defense shut down the Army running game, forcing another three and out after an initial West Virginia offsides penalty. The Black Knights moved the ball eight yards on four plays in just under two minutes of play.

On the next Mountaineers possession, Doege hit Sean Ryan for a 28-yard completion to the Black Knights 17-yard line, which set up a 31-yard field goal by Sumpter for the game’s first score. It was 3-0 West Virginia with 1:47 left in the first quarter.

For the Black Knights, it was time to move away from the run and move towards the passing game. Christian Anderson replaced Tyler at quarterback. He immediately connected on a 13-yard pass to Cole Caterbone to end the quarter.

On the first play of the second quarter, Anderson threw to A.J. Howard for a six-yard completion at midfield. Anderson and Tyler split duties at quarterback for the rest of the game.

Army running back A.J. Howard gets past Mountaineers defender Vandarius Cowan during Thursday’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

With 11:23 remaining in the half, Tyler ran for six-yards to the West Virginia 26 yard line. He fumbled but recovered his own drop. The Mountaineers were charged with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty which gave Army a first down at the West Virginia 13 yard line. Four plays later, Tyler scored on a 1-yard touchdown run. Army ran 14 plays for 74 yards in 7:12 on the drive and led 7-3 with 9:31 left in the half.

The Mountaineers struck back quickly. They marched down the field on two receptions from Sam Brown (19 and 14 yards), an 18 yard reception from Winston Wright Jr. and four rushes from Leddie Brown. Doege hit T.J. Simmons on a 5-yard pass for the touchdown and a 10-7 lead with 4:21 remaining in the half.

The West Virginia defense held Army to 13 yards and a punt on the next possession, but Army’s Malkelm Morrison sacked Doege for a 22-yard loss and forced the fumble. Army’s Ryan Duran III recovered the fumble on the West Virginia 7-yard line. Two plays later, Tyler scored on a six-yard run for his second rushing touchdown of the quarter. Army led 14-10 at the half.

The Black Knights opened up their running game in the first possession of the third quarter. A 13 play, 75 yard drive ended with a two-yard touchdown run by Tyler, his third of the game. It put Army up 21-10 with 7:00 remaining in the third quarter.

The Mountaineers decided to switch things up on the next possession and inserted backup quarterback Austin Kendall into the lineup. He connected with Bryce Ford-Wheaton for 27 yards and T.J. Simmons for 31 yards during the 10 play 80-yard drive, which ended on a three-yard touchdown by Mike O’Laughlin. After a failed two point conversion, the score was 21-16 with just over three minutes remaining in the third quarter.

West Virginia’s Casey Legg successfully recovered the onside kick, which gave them the ball at the Army 47-yard line. However, the Mountaineers went three-and-out on the next drive.

Neither team could put a sustained drive together on their next possessions as both teams punted twice.

Kendall connected on four consecutive passes, the last one a 20-yarder to T.J. Simmons for the touchdown. Reece Smith took a reverse two-yards for the two-point conversion to put the Mountaineers ahead 24-21 with 5:10 remaining in the contest.

Anderson connected with Chris Cameron for a 29-yard reception to advance the ball deep into Mountaineer territory, but the Black Knights were unable to convert a first down after that. With 5:10 remaining on the clock,  Quinn Maretzki missed a 39-yard field goal wide to the right.

Mountaineers linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo hauls in the interception to seal the West Virginia victory in the 2020 AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Thursday. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

Army’s defense held West Virginia to a three-and-out, using all three of their timeouts in the process. After advancing to the Mountaineers 47 yard line, West Virginia’s Josh Chandler-Semedo picked off Anderson’s pass sealing the victory for the Mountaineers.

“I thought this game kind of mirrored 2020 in a lot of ways, so it’s a fitting way to close out the year. It wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it was gritty,” said Mountaineers head coach Neal Brown. “And now we have to make the bigger jump which is going from the middle to up to the top and compete for a championship. You have got to win your bowl game to do that. We did that and now we carry momentum into the off season, but we still got a lot of work to do. We are going to celebrate this, take some time off and we know we’ve got the next eight months that are going to be critical in our program’s development.”

Doege went 15-for-25, 159 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception; while Kendall went 8-for-17, 121 yards and 2 touchdowns for the Mountaineers. Anderson finished on 4-for-6 passing, 57 yards and an interception for Army.

Army head coach Jeff Monken said, “It’s just an honor and privilege for us to be here. And this is a great experience for our team. As you said, we didn’t know if we’re going to have a bowl game at all, and to be selected by you, to represent West Point, to play a great opponent, like West Virginia, we just we felt incredibly honored and very grateful for the opportunity.”

Tyler led all rushers with 24 carries for 76 yards and three touchdowns. Leddie Brown led West Virginia with 20 carries for 65 yards.

“You know, a lot of times we didn’t execute to the best of our ability, but no they played hard. We played hard but they were a really good defense,” said Army quarterback Tyhier Tyler. “Our coaches always tell you that all the quarterbacks have to be ready. I’m sure you know, a lot of quarterbacks in our room have played but everybody’s always ready. We bring different things to the table, but coach tells us throughout the week to be flexible and always be ready to go. I just kept doing my job, following blocks you know, I didn’t change anything different.”

West Virginia wide receiver T.J. Simmons hauls in a pass while Army defensive back Marquel Broughton attempts to tackle during Thursday’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Photo by James C. Garvin/Sportspage Magazine

T.J. Simmons led West Virginia in the receiving category with four receptions, 56 yards and two touchdowns. Army was led by Chris Cameron’s single 32-yard reception, and Cole Caterbone’s two receptions for 19 yards.

“I wasn’t really thinking about that when the game first started, but the tempo of the game, at the beginning of game, was like a normal game on and off the field,” said Simmons regarding Army’s time of possession. “Then towards the second half when they had the lead, they started to run a little bit more to clock out. They did a good job of keeping us warm, keeping us engaged while we were on the sideline and making sure we weren’t getting tight. We just kept moving, and we just wanted to stay in the game.”

Josh Chandler-Semedo led West Virginia with 13 tackles while Arik Smith notched seven for Army.

West Virginia, with 42 yards total rushing, became only the second team in AutoZone Liberty Bowl history to win with fewer than 50 yards rushing. Iowa State did it with 32 yards in 2017. West Virginia’s rushing yardage is the seventh-fewest in AutoZone Liberty Bowl history.

Army’s Tyhier Tyler’s three rushing touchdowns ties the AutoZone Liberty Bowl record for most rushing touchdowns in the game. He ties three others for the honor. Army’s three rushing touchdowns ties for the sixth-most in AutoZone Liberty Bowl history.

NOTES:

• The AutoZone Liberty Bowl is now the seventh-longest running bowl game among all college bowls. The AutoZone Liberty Bowl moved up one spot after the cancellation of this year’s Sun Bowl, which was the fourth-longest entering this bowl season. The six bowls ahead of the Liberty Bowl (in order of run): 1. Rose; 2. Orange; 3. Sugar; 4. Cotton; 5. Gator; 6. Citrus.

• This was Army’s first AutoZone Liberty Bowl appearance, and West Virginia’s third showing but first victory.

• The AutoZone Liberty Bowl is only the second bowl game to host all three service academies: Air Force, Army and Navy. Air Force has the most AutoZone Liberty Bowl appearances with four (1989, 1990, 1991, 1992). Navy has played twice in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl (1981, 2019). The Armed Services Bowl is the other bowl game where all three service academies have appeared.

• Today’s match-up was the first between the two programs in a bowl. The win was West Virginia’s first over Army outside of West Point, New York. All three previous encounters between the Mountaineers and Cadets were played on Army’s home field.

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