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Bowl notebook: Simmons exits with top honors, Brown eyes next step

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For the second consecutive season under head coach Neal Brown, the Mountaineers have closed out a campaign with a three-point victory. Last year, WVU edged TCU 20-17 in the season finale. On Thursday, the Mountaineers erased an 11-point deficit to defeat Army, 24-21 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Brown is pleased that their previous performance in a 42-6 loss at Iowa State will not be the lasting memory of the 2020 season.

“Going into this game, we had played football and were great representatives of how the game should be played for eight games,” Brown said. “We didn’t win them all but we had a chance to win every single one of them. Our ninth game was ugly. It wasn’t who we were. For us to bounce back and have a come-from-behind victory here in the fourth quarter, win our second bowl game since joining the Big 12, I thought it was huge.”

The West Virginia Mountaineers hoist their AutoZone Liberty Bowl trophy (Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal)

Eight months will come off the calendar before the Mountaineers return to the field at Maryland on September 4th to open up the 2021 season. Brown believes his program has taken a necessary step in his second season.

“We wanted to make sure this was the first step into ’21. The point we made is, the Big 12 to now is undefeated in bowl games. The league is not getting any easier. I thought we went from kind of the bottom third of the league and moved up to the middle. Now we have to make the bigger jump going from the middle to the top and competing for a championship.

“You have to win your bowl game. We did that. And now we carry momentum into the offseason. But we still have a lot of work to do. We are very aware of that. We are going to celebrate this then take some time off. The next eight months are going to be critical in our development.”

Senior sendoff 

A senior group of twenty players were listed as the bowl co-captains. Although all are able to return in 2021 with an additional year of eligibility, most have played their last game for the Mountaineers.

“A lot of our glue guys that are seniors and finishing their careers, they played big roles in this. That’s special. That’s a memory for them that they will have for their entire life. That’s a happy locker room in there. That’s a locker room that has poured a ton into it.”

Coming full circle

One of those seniors opened his Mountaineer career as Neal Brown’s first starting quarterback. He ended up being the ‘closer’ for WVU’s first bowl victory in five seasons. Austin Kendall came off the bench to throw a pair of second-half touchdowns, erasing an 11-point deficit.

“Over the last two months of the season, he handled adversity very well and had a good attitude. He was fun to coach. When his number got called, he made the most of it.”

Austin Kendall throws the ball against the Army Black Knights (Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal)

“He has done a good job of being a good teammate to (Jarret) Doege. He helps him out when he sees something that Doege doesn’t see. He still practices hard. He comes to work everyday ready to work,” said WVU senior wideout T.J. Simmons.

“When he got out there and made some plays, it felt like last year. Austin was the starting quarterback last year and he did make a lot of plays last year. It was just natural with us. We were just making plays together.”

Simmons closes out season in strong fashion

T.J. Simmons’ final season with the Mountaineers can be broken in two easily distinguishable halves. In his first four games, Simmons caught just 7 passes for 148 yards without a touchdown catch. In his final four games, Simmons caught four passes in each contest. He had 233 receiving yards and 4 scores in that stretch. Simmons capped his Mountaineer career as the Liberty Bowl’s offensive player of the game.

West Virginia Mountaineers receiver T.J. Simmons celebrates with fans. (Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal)

“My experience at West Virginia for the last three years has been amazing,” Simmons said. “The fans have embraced me. Everybody on each staff has embraced me. All my teammates I came in contact with have embraced me. I just love the state of West Virginia. This was my last game as a Mountaineer. I am grateful for the experience and I am ready to see what the next chapter in my life holds.”

In defense of the defense

With nine games remaining in the college football season, West Virginia will likely finish in the top five in the FBS in total defense. The Mountaineers are currently fourth in the nation, allowing 291.4 yards per game.

West Virginia Mountaineers defender Josh Chandler-Semedo, left, celebrates his game-ending interception (Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal)

“We finished as one of the top five defenses in the country,” said WVU linebacker Josh Chandler-Semedo. “As you guys saw, we had a couple games where we gave up a little too much, the Iowa State game, the Texas game, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech where we just kind of let things slip. We know the potential. We could have easily been the number-one ranked defense this year if we stuck to the details.”

Final analysis of an unprecedented season

Late starts and constant schedule interruptions will be some of the lasting memories from a COVID-affected 2020 college football season. The Mountaineers nearly completed all ten games of their regular season schedule prior to the cancellation of the Oklahoma game.

“I just really believe that playing football was the right thing to do,” Brown said. “That quarantine time was really hard. My antenna is always up for mental health, but that was a difficult time for guys 17-to-23 years old to be completely thrown out of their routine. I think playing was a positive experience.”

Army Black Knights’ Sandon McCoy stands with his teammates and their opponent, the West Virginia Mountaineers after the AutoZone Liberty Bowl (Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal)

“2020 has been a different experience for me,” Chandler-Semedo said. “I had a couple deaths in my family. I had a couple things go sideways for me. Really I was just able to persevere and fight. Football definitely saved my life this year.”

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