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WEEKEND MORNING QUARTERBACK: WVU sends fans home happy

For the past three decades, WVU Mountaineer fans have become accustomed to dreary holiday bowl seasons. Take away the four years of Pat White at quarterback and West Virginia’s bowl record since 1987 was a paltry 3-18. During one stretch of Don Nehlen’s tenure the Mountaineers lost 11 of 12 bowl games. The last three appearances under Dana Holgerson were embarrassing one-sided defeats.

Late in the first half of Thursday’s Liberty Bowl, WVU appeared that at least it would go into the locker room with a three point lead, for which fans were thankful considering a first half where West Virginia could not run the ball and when quarterback Jarret Doege was occasionally on the mark with his passes many were dropped. But then with just over a minute remaining in the half Doege inexcusably coughed up the ball inside the ten yard line enabling Army to take a halftime lead. And when the Knights went on one of their patented 8 minute 75 yard touchdown drives to begin the second half, Mountaineer fans were staring at another depressing bowl game fiasco.

Help then came from an unexpected source. Backup quarterback Austin Kendall, who had lost his starting job late in the 2019 season and had not taken a snap in 2020 in the last eight games, came off the bench to salvage the WVU offense. Kendall was not sensational, but made enough plays to lead two touchdown scoring drives to retake the lead and the Mountaineers hung on for a 24-21 win.

After scoring the close the gap to 21-16, head coach Neal Brown opted for an onside kick which was successful. Although West Virginia was unable to take immediate advantage, it did flip field position and forced Army to begin its next two possessions at their own 3 and 10 yard lines. After exchanges of punts the Mountaineers were finally able to drive 65 yards in 8 plays for the winning score with five minutes remaining.

The West Virginia defense, without its best defender Tony Fields (who opted out), was solid through most of the day. The Army option offense has confounded many opponents over the years, but out of 10 possessions WVU permitted only two long scoring drives and the Knights weren’t able to sustain anything beyond six plays in their remaining opportunities. Army gained only 239 total yards and averaged just 3.1 yards per rushing attempt.

It was an uneven performance against a non Power Five team, but given the traditional bowl futility it was a satisfying win to cap the season. The victory enabled West Virginia to finish the 2020 season with a winning 6-4 record, exceeding expectations. Neal Brown also remained undefeated in four bowl appearances in his head coaching career.

So the Mountaineers will enter the 2021 season on a positive note, and fans will look forward to what hopefully will be a return to normalcy and a packed stadium in what we all hope will be a better year for all.

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