West Virginia is going bowling on New Year’s Eve — the Mountaineers will end their season at the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against the Army Black Knights. Action gets underway at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Quick Hits

  • West Virginia (5-4) vs. Army (9-2) in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl
  • Kickoff is set for Dec. 31 at 4 p.m. ET at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, TN
  • Game will be shown on ESPN
  • WVU is a 7-point favorite over Army
  • Army leads the all-time series, 2-1
  • Last meeting: WVU 7, Army 3 at Michie Stadium on Oct. 28, 1961
  • WVU: 15-22 all-time bowl record (0-2 at the Liberty Bowl)

WVU will compete in its first bowl game of the Neal Brown era, and its first since the 2018 Camping World Bowl after missing one after its five-win 2019 season. Army is also in its first bowl after a year hiatus, most recently taking a dominating 70-14 win over Nebraska in the 2018 Armed Forces Bowl.

West Virginia has been hunting for a victory ever since its would-be season finale against Oklahoma was canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Mountaineer program. To add to it, WVU’s most recent contest was a disappointing 42-6 loss at sixth-ranked Iowa State — hardly a note on which Neal Brown wanted to end the season.

“Our guys are just ready to play,” Brown said. “Anytime you play as bad as we did the last time out, you want to play another game.”

Although they are among the oldest with long and storied histories, the two programs have faced each other just three times, dating back to 1941. The Black Knights took wins in the first two contests, but WVU was the more recent victor after taking a 7-3 win at West Point under coach Gene Corum.

Here are the top storylines heading into this year’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl:

Army’s getting its shot

There might not be a team hungrier for a bowl game than Army.

The Black Knights had a banner year under coach Jeff Monken, earning nine wins in a shortened season. They had a primary agreement to play in the Independence Bowl, receiving and accepting a bid to the contest back in October — but that was for naught when the bowl was canceled due to a “lack of teams available to play.”

This obviously left a bad taste in the mouths of the Black Knights.

“These young men haven’t quit all year and we surely won’t quit now. They deserve better. Period,” said Mike Buddie, West Point’s Director of Athletics. “They have earned the opportunity to get 10 wins and, as we have all year, we will continue to fight to get them that opportunity.”

On Dec. 21, that opportunity materialized when it was announced that Army would replace Tennessee as West Virginia’s opponent in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

We’re not in Kansas (or Texas, or Oklahoma) anymore

West Virginia will face an offense that it doesn’t ever see playing in the Big 12 — in fact, Army’s scheme is something that Neal Brown says he hasn’t faced since becoming a college head coach.

Although well-known and widely renowned, Army’s under-center option offense is a bit of a unicorn in college football. The Black Knights hardly ever throw the ball (they’ve attempted just 70 passes so far this year, contrasted with 359 tosses), but their deceptive and whirlwind blocking schemes spread out their rushing carries and make it tough for the defense to know who is actually getting the ball each play.

It’s worked, as Army is able to chip 4.7 yards away every run.

Preparing for the option has been one-of-a-kind, Brown said, but it adds a bit of excitement to WVU’s practices.

“When you get to this part in the year as long of a season as we’ve had, when you get the opportunity to do something a little bit different, it makes you pay attention,” Brown said. “Your practice is a little more spirited and the same goes for the scout team.”

WVU’s stout defense will look slightly different, however. Leading tackler and middle linebacker Tony Fields II announced that he will opt out of this game to prepare for the NFL Draft. Josh Chandler-Semedo and Dylan Tonkery will step into that role, one in which they both have experience.

Don’t worry, the Mountaineers will have another Arizona transfer on the roster despite Fields’s unavailability — Scottie Young is slated to make his debut in the Old Gold and Blue, backing up Tykee Smith at the Spear position.

Black Knights hold the line

While the peculiar offensive scheme of Army is definitely attention-grabbing, there’s no doubt its defense is a major backbone of the team and its success.

Of course, ranking No. 21 in scoring and fifth in total defense, WVU’s unit was nothing to sneeze at — but Army’s just happens to rank second nationally in both of those categories. One could argue that those numbers are skewed due to the offense’s effect on the game (dominating time of possession, reducing total possessions for both teams, and overall, shrinking the number of snaps in every game), but simply put, they’ve been effective all year.

WVU quarterback Jarret Doege has a tall task ahead of him if he wants to best Army’s nation-best passing defense. Led by cornerback Jabari Moore and his three picks, the Black Knights have established a “no-fly zone” by allowing just 149 yards through the air every game.

“[Moore] makes a lot of plays,” Brown said. “He seems to be always around the ball and I’m impress by how he’s playing.”

If Doege is able to find some holes in that secondary, that could really open the game up for the Mountaineers. In both of their losses, Army gave up more than their average, including a 262-yard day for Cincinnati through the air (the Bearcats won, 24-10).

Viewing information

Kickoff is at 4 p.m. on Dec. 31, and it will be shown on ESPN. Be sure to start your Liberty Bowl gameday with the Mountaineer GameDay Bowl Special, which will get you ready in the three hours leading up to kickoff — just be sure to check your local listings!