By CLAY BAILEY
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — West Virginia coach Neal Brown knew he would use reserve quarterback Austin Kendall in the second half. The redshirt senior ended up leading the Moutaineers to a Liberty Bowl victory.
Kendall threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Simmons with 5:10 left, and West Virginia held off Army 24-21 on Thursday.
Brown said the decision to switch quarterbacks was made at halftime by the Mountaineers coaching staff after starter Jarret Doege struggled, particularly in the second quarter.
“Jarret has played very, very well all year, but for whatever reason, he didn’t see it well,” Brown said, adding: “I thought (Kendall) came in in relief and did a nice job.”
Army (9-3) had a chance to tie it with 1:50 left, but Quinn Maretzki’s 39-yard field goal was wide left. Josh Chandler ended Army’s final possession with an interception and led the Mountaineers (6-4) with 13 tackles.
Simmons also scored on a 5-yard pass from Doege.
Army quarterback Tyhier Tyler had three rushing touchdowns — from 1, 6, and 2 yards — to tie a Liberty Bowl record.
“You can’t do anything without the offensive line, the slotbacks and the fullbacks,” Tyler said. “They pave the way, and I just follow.”
The Black Knights initially were scheduled to play in the Independence Bowl but seemed left out of the bowl lineup after the Shreveport, Louisiana, bowl was canceled. They got the opportunity to play in the Liberty Bowl after Tennessee (3-7) opted out because of COVID-19 cases.
The game was played in overcast conditions with occasional showers and sub-40-degree temperatures. The weather and local COVID-19 restrictions limited the crowd in the 60,000-seat Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, leaving clusters of the announced 8,187 fans scattered throughout the stadium.
Both team controlled the other’s offense through much of the first half. Army coach Jeff Monken noted that his team, one of the best rushing teams in the country, was limited to 83 total yards by halftime.
“West Virginia just whipped blocks, they beat blocks,” Monken said. “(They) got themselves where they needed to be to make the play. And they did that a lot.”
What began as a defensive battle, changed after halftime. Army’s rushing offense got untracked, while a change in quarterbacks to Kendall for West Virginia gave it more firepower through the air.
“I thought this game kind of mirrored 2020 in a lot of ways,” Brown said. “A fitting way to close out the year. It wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it was gritty.”
Army: The Black Knights’ vaunted rushing offense couldn’t move early, not picking up their initial first down until the final play of the opening quarter. Eventually, they had some success attacking the perimeter of the West Virginia defense.
West Virginia: While the defense controlled things early, the Mountaineers couldn’t capitalize enough to build a significant lead. Turnovers hurt West Virginia, especially Doege’s fumble deep in his own territory late in the first half, giving Army a lead. Kendall taking over at quarterback made a difference as he threw for 121 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
Army was down eight players who did not dress for the game, many of them key parts of the team, because of health and safety protocol.
“I don’t know if it changed,” Monken said. “Obviously, when you have players that are a big part of your offense and defense, kicking game included, it changes you some.”
The loss snapped the Black Knights three-game winning streak. “The most painful aspect is just not being finish it,” linebacker Arik Smith said. “Being that close and not being able to finish it. But we will regroup and do this again, and we will win.”
Army: The Black Knights , who ended the regular season on a three-game winning streak, will try and continue its winning ways. There are 17 seniors listed on the Army roster, but four of the five offensive line starters are seniors.
West Virginia: While the Mountaineers lost four games during the regular season, three of those were to teams nationally ranked at the time. With key offensive players such as Doege and leading rusher Leddie Brown with another years of eligibility along with a young corps of receivers, the Mountaineers have a nice future on offense.