West Virginia rallies to beat Army 24-21 in Liberty Bowl

West Virginia quarterback Jarrett Doege (2) throws a pass while under pressure from Army linebacker Nathaniel Smith (44) during the first half of the Liberty Bowl NCAA college football game in Memphis, Tenn., Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020.

MORGANTOWN — It may be the most overlooked aspect of big-time college football coaching, yet it ranks quite high in what separates the good from the great.

Coaches spend lifetimes studying their professions, beginning as high school players, learning from those who benefit from having once played, once taken college courses, people who learn the schematics and the theories of the game.

But there is so much more and it is not something generally picked up in clinics and classrooms, but instead something instinctual that some of them can’t even explain but that rise to the surface at just the right time in the biggest of games.

Recruiting, certainly, is where the building of a team begins, for you win with talent ... but you must have players with more than just size, speed and strength. And putting those players into a scheme that fits that talent is what allows a coach to not squander what he has envisioned.

But, perhaps, West Virginia’s Neal Brown on New Year’s Eve tipped his hand to the potential of his greatest coaching gift as he turned an apparent defeat to Army in the 2020 Liberty Bowl into a thrilling, 24-21 come-from-behind victory that was built more out of a sense of timing and inventiveness, the willingness to be daring and gamble, and, finally, belief not so much in himself, but in those who work under him and play for him.

Let’s examine key moments and the key decisions to which his decisions led:

Replacing starting QB Doege with Kendall

First, let’s understand it took neither insight nor courage to displace Doege for the second half. That was a given after Doege threw an interception that killed a drive, seemed to be throwing passes that his receivers couldn’t reach or, if they did, couldn’t catch and dropped and, at the end of the half, seemingly came completely disoriented.

“Jarret has played very, very well all year, but he just, for whatever reason, didn’t see it well,” Neal Brown said. “We had two very uncharacteristically bad turnovers. The interception was a play that really hurt us. I think that led to their first points. The two-minute drill where we didn’t execute very well. We got the ball back after the fumble and I didn’t think our response was very good there.”

Should Brown have given Doege a chance to regroup after halftime?

Or, already down 21-7, was it now or never?

And can you really believe that replacing him with a player in Kendall who had failed with numerous former chances could step up and do the job?

That is where the coaching genius comes in ... timing, believing in a player who had not played since the season’s first game and who had lost the starting job to the player he now was replacing.

“We were going to start Austin in the second half, give him a drive,” Brown said of what he termed a staff decision but in the end rested upon him. “Austin has practiced really well during bowl prep and, really, during the last six weeks has practiced really well. We have confidence in him.”

The ability to have confidence in Kendall does not always come easily to a head coach whose job is being evaluated on every decision.

This one was surely going to be greeted by many fans and, perhaps, executives like the quarterback who throws a terrible pass bring out the “Oh, nos” only to have the receiver make a diving catch as they cheer while shouting “I knew he could do it!”

“Coach 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.

On living with dropped passes

To West Virginia, a good part of this year’s offense has Brown’s willingness to remain confident in receivers who suffered badly with this affliction. The season opened with 12 drops and ended with at least 10, including any number of misfires by senior T.J. Simmons.

But, in the end, Simmons finished with two touchdown catches.

The proof of Brown’s willingness to continue trying to bring his receivers along was found in the box score, which showed that no fewer than eight receivers caught passes for the Mountaineers, seven of them with multiple receptions.

“It wasn’t pretty, but we got the win, and it gives us some momentum heading into the offseason,” Brown said.

Play of the game

Say what you will, games may be won by the teams that block and tackle best, as coaches emphasize, but a good trick play never hurts and Brown is not afraid to gamble.

A pair of two-point conversions were attempted, one of which was a well drawn-up attempt, but failed. The second was a nifty reverse to Reese Smith — there we go again, putting players no one is looking for to make plays in a position to make game-changing plays — gave WVU its final margin of victory.

But the play of the game came shortly after Kendall was inserted into the game for the second half.

Army had come out after halftime and scored to make it 21-10 and all the momentum lay on their side.

But Kendall came in and tacked his first of two TDs on the board and Brown sensed the moment was right.

He pulled out an onside kick that was recovered by Alonzo Addae.

True, WVU didn’t score off the recovery, but it didn’t have to.

“It was mostly overlooked because we ended up punting, but it completely changed the field position for the second half of the game.” Brown said.

Indeed, Tyler Sumpter’s punt of 43 yards rolled dead at the Army 3 and put them in a hole they never really escaped until WVU had control of the game.

Had Army recovered the onside kick and scored off the short field it produced, it would have been disastrous, but Brown’s instincts were right ... and that ain’t something they teach in coaching school.

Follow @bhertzel on Twitter

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