Home Liberty isn’t just happy to be in the Fiesta Bowl: The Flames want to win

Liberty isn’t just happy to be in the Fiesta Bowl: The Flames want to win

Scott Ratcliffe
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In just his first season as Liberty football coach, Jamey Chadwell has already guided his team to an undefeated regular season and a conference championship. On Monday, the 23rd-ranked Flames will look to cap off their unforgettable season when they go up against No. 8 Oregon in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

It’ll have been a calendar month since Liberty (13-0) claimed the Conference USA title against

New Mexico State, 49-35, on Dec. 1. Chadwell promises his team knows what is at stake and will be “ready to go” on the national stage.

“We were obviously excited when our name was released, I guess Selection Sunday…,” said Chadwell. “Ever since then, ‘Hey, you guys, we’re thankful to be in this, but also we’re going to play our best game and win the football game,’ and that’s been our mindset all year long and it’s not going to change, even though we’re playing a phenomenal team.

“We know the challenge. We know we’re the underdog. We know that, we’ve known everybody’s told us we’ve got no chance. Somebody gave us a 1-percent chance and it reminded me of the movie Dumb and Dumber — ‘So you’re telling me there’s a chance.’”

During their memorable run, the Flames have won six games against teams that went to a bowl game (Bowling Green, New Mexico State twice, Jacksonville State, Western Kentucky and Old Dominion), but they head into Monday’s game ranked 127th out of 133 FBS schools in strength of schedule (Oregon was 86th).

Liberty’s spread-option offense is averaging 40.8 points and 514.9 yards per contest, with the bulk of the production — 302.9 yards per game — coming via the rush.

Flames quarterback Kaidon Salter, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound sophomore from Cedar Hill, Texas, has thrown for 2,750 yards and 31 touchdowns (5 interceptions) while also rushing for 1,064 yards and 12 more touchdowns.

Junior Quinton Cooley (5-7, 210 pounds), a Wake Forest transfer who admitted that Oregon was his “dream school,” leads the Flames in rushing with 1,322 yards and 16 touchdowns. Salter and Cooley combined for 236 yards and 4 rushing touchdowns alone against the Aggies last month.

Conversely, Oregon has one of the top rushing defenses in the nation. The Ducks rank ninth in the country against the run, holding opponents to 97.5 yards on the ground per game.

CJ Daniels is the team’s most lethal receiving threat with 988 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2023. The Liberty defense has racked up 25.0 sacks and a Division-I-best 21 interceptions.

On the other sideline, Oregon coach Dan Lanning led the Ducks to four wins over bowl teams during the regular season (Texas Tech, Utah, USC and Oregon State). They’ll be playing for their fifth 12-win season in program history.

The Ducks (11-2) had their six-game winning streak snapped against Washington in the Pac-12 Championship, 34-31, on Dec. 1. It was their second loss to the second-ranked and unbeaten Huskies (both by three points), who will be playing Texas later on Monday in the Sugar Bowl for a spot in the national title game next week.

The Ducks average 44.2 points and 527.4 total yards per game, second in the country in those categories. A lot of the output comes from the passing game, which posted 342.8 yards a game and 9.4 yards per pass.

Quarterback Bo Nix, a projected NFL draft pick and Heisman Trophy finalist who finished third in the voting, threw for 4,145 yards this season with 40 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions (the Ducks have only turned the ball over seven times all year). He ranks No. 1 in the country in completion percentage at .772 (336 for 435).

“Bo’s been a really accurate passer this season,” said Lanning. “I think it starts with decision-making, where to take the ball. Even one of those interceptions hit our guy right in the chest, so he’s done a great job of protecting the ball, and when you do that, you have an opportunity to win games.”

The Auburn transfer also rushed for 228 yards and 6 touchdowns, but is not nearly the threat with his legs that his counterpart is.

Nix has a pair of 1,000-yard receivers to get the ball to — Troy Franklin (1,383 receiving yards, 14 touchdowns) and Tez Johnson (1,010 yards, 9 touchdowns). Running back Bucky Irving (1,063 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns) is a force to be reckoned with out of the backfield when the ball isn’t flying through the air.

Defensively, Oregon was one of only three D-I schools to limit opponents to 10 points or less in at least six of its games. The Ducks have registered 34.0 sacks and 11 interceptions. Just like the Flames, Oregon owns a plus-9 turnover ratio, which is tied for 12th in the FBS.

Lanning was Georgia’s defensive coordinator when the Bulldogs claimed the 2022 CFP national championship, so it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about that side of the ball.

“They’re one of the best teams in this country, and if things had went their way, they’d be playing for a national championship,” Chadwell said of the Ducks. “So we get a chance to see where we’re at, where our program is at, compared against the best.”

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe has worked as a freelance writer for several publications over the past decade-plus, with a concentration on local and college sports. He is also a writer and editor for his father’s website, JerryRatcliffe.com, dedicated to the coverage of University of Virginia athletics.