Aggies Oust, Outlast WVU In Liberty Bowl

West Virginia had momentum, the lead and the ball. And then, in just a handful of snaps, it all went away in the 45-37 Liberty Bowl loss to Texas A&M here in Memphis on Monday.

West Virginia, leading 27-21 late in the second quarter, had the Aggies stopped near midfield when a roughing the punter call gave A&M a first down that eventually led to Kyle Allen’s scrambling touchdown run on a busted play to cap the 12-play, 90-yard drive – the longest of the game. The Mountaineers were never the same team after, allowing 24 of the next 27 points in losing for fourth time in its final five games.

The collapse was so complete that WVU managed just three points on its final eight possessions before punching in late for the final margin. Texas A&M, in winning its school-record fourth consecutive bowl game, racked up 529 yards of total offense, and outgaining WVU 235-126 on the ground. What’s worse, the performance comes against one of the worst statistical Power Five defenses that was without its coordinator as Mark Snyder was fired following the regular season. A&M was also sans two other assistants, but it didn’t seem to matter against the Mountaineers.

“We just didn’t play good enough; too many missed opportunities,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “Those guys looked pretty good. Bigger, faster, stronger than we were.”

And with better execution. The series of the two plays – the special teams penalty and the busted play for score – seemed trivial at the time when they occurred when, on third and seven from the 14, the Mountaineers allowed a busted play in which Allen ran the wrong way to transform a loss into a touchdown when WVU couldn’t bring the quarterback down. It was a huge statistical and momentum play, as West Virginia, instead of having at least a three-point lead and the ball after the half, were behind. The pair of plays were the trickle of an oncoming avalanche, as A&M handed West Virginia its fourth bowl defeat in the last five appearances. The loss means the Mountaineers fail to reach the eight-win mark for the third consecutive season since joining the Big 12. WVU has lost 16 of 20 games down the stretch since the Orange Bowl season, the wins coming against Iowa State (twice), Kansas and TCU.

“We play with good effort, and we were excited to play the game,” Holgorsen said. “We won more games than we did last year and were competitive in some games that we were able to pull out the victory. But it still amounts to 7-6.”

WVU seemed to somewhat abandoned a decent run game in the second half beginning immediately; the Mountaineers received the second half kickoff, and seemed primed to begin a solid drive when Rushel Shell ran for seven on first down. But WVU chose to throw the ball twice on second and three and third and three, and the two incompletions gave A&M the ball after a punt.

The Aggies responded with a 26-yard field goal by Josh Lambo for a 31-27 lead, and that was followed by another lackadaisical offensive series by WVU(three plays, minus-1 yard). Texas A&M took advantage with a six-play, 54-yard drive highlighted by a key Allen scramble and throw that set-up Trey Williams’ 18-yard scoring run that put the Mountaineers behind 38-27 and signaled the beginning of the end. To that point, the second half yardage was 111 for Texas A&M to West Virginia’s 15, and the Mountaineers would run for just 75 yards in the second half – still more than the first half – and never threaten the lead over the final 20 minutes.

“I was never happy with our running game,” Holgorsen said. “I thought Wendell gave us a little bit of a burst. But we never got a push up front. I’ll have to look at the film and see why. They had SEC big defensive lineman, but if we are going to be relevant to the point where we consider championships and win big bowl games and finish with a big record and compete for a championship we are going to have to block those type of people and we didn’t do that today.”

Skyler Howard, in making just his second career start, finished 20 of 45 for 346 yards and three scores against no interceptions. The sophomore struggled with control, and perhaps containing his excitement, repeatedly missing makeable throws – at least a pair of which could have gone for touchdowns. Howard utilized his running ability, and made a handful of lays with his feet. But his at-times erratic throws, coupled with West Virginia’s lack of running game and a handful of drops – notable one by Mario Alford in the end zone – doomed the Mountaineers to a second Liberty Bowl defeat in as many appearances.

“I think Skyler made improvement,” Holgorsen said. “He was off a little bit, threw some high balls. But the way he operated, the way he communicated, the way he ran the offense, I saw improvement.”

Allen, meanwhile, connected on 22 of 35 throws for 294 yards and four scores with an interception to K.J. Dillon that was returned for a touchdown. The freshman again played above his experience level, but was helped by a running attack which grinded out 235 yards and kept the Aggies largely in front of the chains. Tra Carson rushed for 133 yards on 25 carries, and Malcolm Kennedy (7-82 yards, 2 TD) and Josh Reynolds (5-80 yards, 1 TD) led A&M’s receivers. Kevin White paced WVU with seven receptions for 129 yards and a lone touchdown. Wendell Smallwood rushed for 77 yards; Shell was held to just 22 yards on 12 carries.

“We couldn’t get off blocks,” Holgorsen said. “We were stuck on blocks like I’ve never seen.”

Texas A&M (8-5) led 28-27 lead at the break. Prior to that, the two teams had swapped scores during the second quarter, Texas A&M getting an 11-yard scoring toss from Allen to Kennedy before WVU hit a 49-yard vertical route to White, who beat a pair of defenders to run under the well-thrown ball by Howard just at the goal line for the 27-21 edge. It was Howard’s second-longest touchdown pass of his collegiate career, after a 53-yard score to Alford against Kansas State.

The first quarter was a similarly fast-paced affair that featured a quick A&M 44-yard strike to Reynolds on its second offensive series for a 7-0 lead. The score gave Reynolds the A&M school record for touchdown receptions with 13. West Virginia then responded with a 10-play, 56-yard drive aided by a targeting foul that caused Aggies’ defensive back Howard Matthews to be ejected for a hit to Jordan Thompson’s head. A&M was also flagged for pass interference on fourth and one, and that eventually led to Josh Lambert’s 32-yard field goal.

WVU forced a three and out on its next defensive series, then got a 45-yard touchdown pass from Howard to Alford on third and nine to lead 10-7. The call was perfect against A&M’s alignment, as the Aggies brought a blitz off the right side and got burned when Howard threw down the line to Alford, who had two blockers against three defensive backs. Mario Alford beat the third, corner Deshazor Everett, when the senior jumped into the inside and Alford beat him outside with speed and one cut.

Dillon then pushed the lead to 17-7 with an easy interception return of a poor Allen throw to the boundary. Dillon, playing the flats, had the ball thrown right to him, and ran untouched for 35 yards and the 17-7 lead. A&M capped the first quarter scoring with a fourth down conversion when nose guard Kyle Rose, assigned to cover the back out of the backfield, simply couldn’t match-up speed-wise on the straight vertical route. Allen flipped an easy throw right down the middle of the zone to Williams for the 40-yard touchdown. But that still – in as entertaining a first quarter in recent memory – didn’t cap the scoring as, with just 1:20 left, still managed a 40-yard Lambert field goal for a 20-14 lead after the first 15 minutes.

The kick tied Lambert for the NCAA record for most field goals attempted in a season with 38, and the most games with more than one successful field goal try with 10. It also tied the most field goals in West Virginia history with 29. In all, there were nine possessions, six kickoffs and 41 plays for 309 yards of offense.

A pair of Mountaineer players were either struck by a shoulder (Andrew Buie) or outright hit in the back of the head (Worley) by Texas A&M student assistant Michael Richardson when the players were on the Aggies sideline. Sumlin, made aware of the issue at the half, did not allow Richardson on the sidelines in the second half.

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