The West Virginia Mountaineers and Army West Point Black Knights will face off in the 62nd annual Liberty Bowl on New Year's Eve in Memphis, Tennessee. Thursday's game was originally set to feature West Virginia against Tennessee. Unfortunately, the Volunteers were forced to back out due to issues related to COVID-19, thus opening the door for a very deserving Army squad. The Black Knights were previously scheduled to play in the Independence Bowl. However, that game was canceled due to a lack of opponents. The good news is that we now have a very intriguing matchup between the Mountaineers and Black Knights.
It's been an up-and-down campaign for West Virginia, which wrapped up its regular season with a record of 5-4 (4-4 Big 12). The Mountaineers started the season 3-1 before dropping three of their last five contests, including a crushing 42-6 loss to Iowa State on the road to close out the regular season. West Virginia, under second-year head coach Neal Brown, will look to bounce back against Army in the Liberty Bowl after missing out on the postseason last year for just the second time in 18 years.
Army will be making its fourth bowl appearance in five years under head coach Jeff Monken. The Black Knights finished the regular season 9-2, with their only losses coming against Tulane and undefeated Cincinnati on the road. Army enters Thursday's Liberty Bowl riding the momentum of a three-game winning streak, which includes victories over Navy (15-0) and Air Force (10-7) to capture the prestigious Commander-In Chief's Trophy for the third time in four years. The Black Knights will now turn their attention to the Mountaineers in search of their third 10-win season in four years.
Thursday's Liberty Bowl will mark just the fourth meeting all-time and the first since 1961 between West Virginia and Army. Army leads the series 2-1.
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: West Virginia (5-4) vs. Army West Point (9-2)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium (Memphis, Tenn.)
Spread: West Virginia -7
When West Virginia Has the Ball
Quarterback Jarret Doege leads the way for a West Virginia offense that averages 422.7 yards and 26.8 points per game. The redshirt junior signal-caller and former Bowling Green transfer completed 64.2 percent of his pass attempts during the regular season for 2,428 yards (second in the Big 12) with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions. Doege's favorite target is sophomore wide receiver Winston Wright Jr., who earned second-team All-Big 12 honors after hauling in a team-leading 45 catches for 528 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But for the most part, it has been a collective effort from a Mountaineer receiving corps that also includes standouts Bryce Ford-Wheaton (23 rec., 365 yds., 3 TDs), Sam James (29, 273, 2) and former Alabama transfer and deep threat T.J. Simmons (18.2 ypr).
The Mountaineers' passing attack will be put to the test against an Army defense that ranks No. 1 in the nation in that department, allowing just 149.9 yards per game through the air. The Black Knights also have just as many interceptions (13) to their credit as they have touchdown passes allowed (13). That being noted, Army's impressive numbers must also be taken with a grain of salt, considering the Black Knights faced four triple-option offenses this season that rarely threw the ball. And in terms of passing yards per game, West Virginia (277.2, No. 26 FBS) represents the best passing attack that Army has faced all season. It will be interesting to see how both sides fare in this highly critical matchup through the air.
West Virginia hasn't been anything to write home about in terms of a run game that has generated a mediocre 145.4 rushing yards per game (No. 81 in FBS). However, the Mountaineers do have a legitimate threat in the backfield in Leddie Brown. The junior running back rushed for 945 yards and nine scores in just nine games en route to first-team All-Big 12 honors. Brown has topped 100 yards in five games and he averages a stout 5.3 yards per carry. He's also a solid pass catcher out of the backfield with 31 receptions for 202 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Brown will have his work cut out for him against a stingy Army run defense that gives up just 121.2 rushing yards per game (No. 20 FBS) and has allowed just five rushing touchdowns on the ground in 11 contests. Army's defense is headlined by second-team All-American linebacker Jon Rhattigan. The Bednarik Award semifinalist leads the team with 78 tackles (nine for a loss) to go along with 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, and two fumble recoveries.
When Army West Point Has the Ball
Army's mission offensively never changes — dominate the line of scrimmage, run the football down the opposing team's throat, and control the clock. The Black Knights have once again executed that game plan quite well this season, utilizing 22 different ball carriers to average 281.3 rushing yards per game, while racking up 33 rushing touchdowns to rank fourth nationally in both regards. Army has utilized four different quarterbacks to orchestrate its triple-option attack, with junior Christian Anderson and sophomore Tyhier Tyler getting the most snaps throughout the season. Tyler has started the last three games and leads the team with 502 rushing yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns. He will likely get the starting nod in the Liberty Bowl as well. However, Anderson, who leads the team in passing yards (158) and ranks fourth in rushing (401), should see time under center against WVU as well. Sophomore Jamel James could also see action.
Sophomore fullback Jakobi Buchanan (474 yards, 6 TDs) is one of two Army running backs to eclipse 400 yards rushing this season along with freshman running back Tyrell Robinson (424, 2). Meanwhile, senior fullback Sandon McCoy has racked up a team-high 10 rushing touchdowns to go along with 250 yards on the ground in what is truly a collective effort from an Army backfield that also leans on Anthony Adkins (276, 4) from time to time.
In a strength vs. strength matchup, Army's potent ground attack will be paired against a West Virginia run defense that allows just 126.2 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. The Mountaineers also have allowed just eight rushing touchdowns in nine games and rank 13th nationally against the run. However, it is worth noting that the Mountaineers weren't quite as strong down the stretch, giving up 183 rushing yards per game over its final three contests. That includes surrendering 236 yards and three touchdowns on the ground against Iowa State in their regular-season finale. West Virginia will also be without leading tackler and Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year Tony Fields II on Thursday, after the star linebacker elected to opt out to focus on the upcoming NFL draft. But WVU still has plenty of firepower on the defensive side of the football to help combat Army's ground game. Chief among them are first-team All-American and Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year Darius Stills and third-team All-American safety Tykee Smith. Freshman defensive lineman Akheem Mesidor and senior defensive back Alonzo Addae earned second-team All-Big 12 honors for their significant contributions this season. And defensive lineman Dante Stills (Darius' brother) also has taken on a starring role up front for the Mountaineers. Something will have to give when these forces collide on New Year's Eve.
West Virginia could have a tough row to hoe offensively against a disciplined Army defense that ranks second nationally in both total yards (271.1) and points allowed (14). However, aside from Cincinnati (who beat Army), the Black Knights haven't faced anyone that could be considered great or even particularly good for that matter. In fact, WVU will be the first Power 5 team that Army has faced all season. The Mountaineer offense, while not great, ranks among the best that Army has faced this season as well.
The big question is — Will the WVU defense have an answer for Army's unconventional triple-option rushing attack? That's difficult to answer considering the Mountaineers haven't faced a triple-option offense since 2015. But based on the Mountaineers' track record against the run this season, they should be up to the challenge for the most part. Meanwhile, the West Virginia offense should be able to squeak out just enough points to come out on top in a hard-fought defensive struggle. It should make for an entertaining matchup, but West Virginia's edge in talent will prevail in the end.
Prediction: West Virginia 21, Army 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Sam James photo courtesy of WVU Athletics)