Army rushes to step in, will face West Virginia in Liberty Bowl
When West Virginia coach Neil Brown gathered his coaches and players for practice on Dec. 21, they were preparing for a Liberty Bowl matchup with Tennessee on New Year's Eve in Memphis.
Then 2020 intervened.
"We started the day preparing for one opponent and will end it preparing for another, but that's how crazy 2020 has been," Brown said.
Tennessee pulled out of the bowl game after coach Jeremy Pruitt and multiple players tested positive for COVID-19. Luckily enough for the Liberty Bowl, it had a better team ready to step in.
Army went from being an outrageous snub to being an attractive catch at 9-2. The Commander-in-Chief trophy winners after a 10-7 defeat of Air Force on Dec. 19, the Black Knights were originally ticketed for the Independence Bowl after winning their sixth game on Oct. 24.
But when the Shreveport-based bowl had to cancel because so many prospective opponents opted out, it left Army in a lurch not of its own making.
Coach Jeff Monken made it clear that he thought his team was getting the short end of the stick, and aside from a handful of ESPN talking heads who had no trouble lugging the Power 5 conferences' water while leaving Group of 5 schools parched, Monken was preaching to the choir.
As the old saying goes, better late than never. The Knights have their bowl bid, and West Virginia (5-4) has a new, more formidable opponent.
"I have great respect for the Army football tradition and the sacrifice the cadets make daily for our country," Brown said. "Coach Monken and his staff have done a great job at West Point."
The Knights own 43 wins in the last five years under Monken, a disciple of former Navy and Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson.
Much like Johnson, Monken believes in triple-option football, a staple at the military academies for most of the last 30 years.
Army finished fourth in the nation this year in rushing, averaging 281.3 yards per game despite having only one player rush for more than 500 yards. But it had four players between 401 and 502 yards, a testament to the balance it possesses.
Most importantly, the Knights played excellent defense, permitting just 14 points per game. Nearly a fourth of their allowance came in a 38-12 loss last month at Tulane. Their other loss was to Cincinnati, 24-10, in September. Cincinnati is now 9-0 and ranked No. 8 in the CFP poll.
"This is going to be a tremendous challenge for us to have any opportunity to win the game," Monken said. "It's exciting for our players. They came here to play big-time football against top-level opponents, and I'm glad they have the opportunity to play one in West Virginia."
The Mountaineers could have easily been 7-2 were it not for one-possession losses at Texas Tech (34-27) and Texas (17-13) in a three-week span. Their final regular-season game with Oklahoma was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.
West Virginia's offense is led by Jarret Doege (2,428 yards, 13 TD passes) and Leddie Brown (945 rushing yards, nine TDs).
This will mark the first time the programs have met in 59 years. Army leads the series 2-1.
--Field Level Media
Updated December 24, 2020