In a one-possession contest with time winding down in the final quarter of the Conference USA Championship on Friday night in Lynchburg, Liberty needed a big play from its defense with New Mexico State threatening to tie the score for the fifth time.
As Aggies true-freshman reserve quarterback Blaze Berlowitz launched a pass toward the end zone for intended target Eli Stowers, it was Liberty senior defensive back Brandon Bishop who went up and got a hand on the ball in mid-air and came away with a huge interception to steal back the momentum and set up the icing on the cake.
When Bishop fell to the turf and was still wrestling with Stowers for possession, the Aggies were celebrating as if they had just tied it back up, but the stadium exploded when the referee pointed in the other direction.
“It was surreal getting that interception. I knew my team needed a play and our backs were against the wall,” said Bishop, who finished with a team-high 11 tackles (6 solo). “We just needed a play and I felt like I could make that play, and I just kept refocusing after each play. Our coaches harped on that this week, about refocusing — good, bad and ugly — and that’s what we kept doing each drive, no matter what.”
Taking over with 9:42 to play and leading by a touchdown, Liberty sophomore quarterback Kaidon Salter led the deciding scoring drive, capped off by his own magician-like, 35-yard touchdown trot with 8:23 remaining that gave the Flames a 49-35 lead, and the Aggies weren’t able to draw any closer.
When all was said and done, the 20th-ranked Flames had set a CUSA Championship Game record with a whopping 712 yards of total offense en route to the victory, staying unbeaten on the memorable season at 13-0, and will now await word on its postseason destination.
“Obviously I’m very proud of our team,” said Flames head coach Jamey Chadwell, who is in his first year with the program. “Things didn’t go perfect for us, we obviously took [the Aggies’] best shot, but there was never a doubt on our sideline that we were going to find a way to get it done. And this group of men have had that mindset all year long, that they believed and thought they’d find a way to get it done.”
Salter was voted as the title bout’s Most Valuable Player, accounting for over 400 total yards on his own (319 passing, 165 rushing, both game highs) and three touchdowns.
Junior running back Quinton Cooley added 71 yards and 3 more scores on the ground, as the Flames registered 393 rushing yards, just one week removed from posting 441, a program single-game record since LU jumped to the FBS level.
Junior wideout CJ Daniels had a big day as well, hauling in 7 receptions for a game-high 157 yards and a touchdown — one that put Liberty ahead by 14 in the early stages of the second half.
Just like they did in the first half, the Aggies fought back to tie it up late in the third period, as a pair of TD tosses — one for 75 yards on the very next snap to Jonathan Brady, the other from Berlowitz to Trent Hudson from 11 yards out, and with 2:57 left in the third, it was a brand-new ballgame at 35-apiece.
Berlowitz was stepping in for injured starter Diego Pavia, NMSU’s leading rusher on the season, who was dealing with shoulder soreness, left the contest in the second half and never returned.
The Flames delivered the go-ahead score on their ensuing trip, however, as Billy Lucas punched one in from 3 yards away, giving LU a 7-point edge with 13:51 remaining.
After Bishop’s key takeaway kept the lead intact, Salter put the finishing touches on the victory with a nifty 35-yard TD scamper that he improvised on when the designed play — a triple option run — broke down at the snap.
“He was wise enough not to run out there and do something that could potentially be a turnover or a lost play, and then he made some people miss,” Chadwell said of Salter’s poise and escapability in such a crucial moment of the contest.
Salter quickly realized he was going nowhere, but somehow managed to avoid a sack, found a seam, slipped his way out of trouble and hustled to the house, pushing the lead back to 14 with 8:23 to play. Aaron Bedgood set up the game-clinching score with a 33-yard run into NMSU territory.
The Aggies were driving as the clock ticked under three minutes, but couldn’t complete a fourth-down pass inside the LU 5-yard line, as the officials determined that the intended receiver did not maintain control of the football, and the fans began to celebrate.
Salter, who completed 20 of his 25 passes on the evening, said afterwards that he had just played the game of his life, and added that the home fans fueled his performance, but that he wasn’t just laying it all on the line for this year’s team — this one was for everyone involved with the Liberty football program across its 50-year history.
“This wasn’t just about us today,” said Salter, “this runs way longer than just today. This runs years back and everything, just the Liberty foundation, we went out there and did it today for that.”
The two teams traded punches to start the contest, with the visiting Aggies striking first to quiet the Williams Stadium crowd, as Pavia scored on a quarterback keeper from 25 yards out with 10:08 on the clock, capping an 8-play, 75-yard drive that spanned 4:52.
The Flames answered with a 9-play, 80-yard march of their own, as Cooley punched his way into the end zone from a yard out after hustling 20 yards on the previous play to set it up, and it was tied at 7-7 with 6:09 left in the first quarter.
NMSU reclaimed the lead on the first play of the second quarter, a 10-yard toss from Pavia to Ron Tiavaasue to make it 14-7.
Liberty was stopped short on its ensuing possession, as a Vaughn Blue run was initially ruled a first down, but the call was then reversed under further review, and LU turned the ball over on downs at the 8:57 mark to a chorus of boos.
It didn’t take long for the Flames to try again, however, as the defense forced a quick three-and-out, and then Cooley busted his way across the goal line five plays later to make it 14-all with 5:38 until the halftime break.
The Aggies were forced to punt right back, and Liberty took its first lead with an 89-yard drive that culminated in a 26-yard TD pass from Salter to Noah Frith, who spun out of a potential tackle and was able to reach across the plane before having the ball popped out, and it was 21-14 with just 27 ticks left.
That turned out to be enough time for Pavia to engineer another scoring drive, connecting with Hudson from 17 yards out with just three seconds showing, and the teams went into the locker room knotted up at 21-21.
In the end, it was the Flames’ day, and NMSU head coach Jerry Kill, who saw his team’s eight-game winning streak come to an end, gave all the credit to Salter and what he was able to do.
“He just doesn’t make mistakes,” said Kill.
Now it’s up to the NCAA committee to determine whether or not the Flames deserve a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game when the pairings are revealed this weekend. Chadwell believes his team has done everything it has needed to do to put itself into consideration. He pointed out that the Aggies recently won at Auburn, a team that had top-10 rival Alabama beaten before losing on the final play of the regular season a week later.
“A hundred percent, I do,” Chadwell said when asked if he thinks his team should be in the mix. “You’ve got 13 wins, our average margin of victory versus bowl-eligible teams… we beat six bowl-eligible teams. That’s the highest [among Group of Five schools] in the country — nobody else is above four currently.
“And so 13 up, 13 down, six teams that you’ve beat that are going to bowl games, one of those teams you beat twice that went to SEC country and hammered an SEC team — who turned around and gave a miracle or they would’ve beat a team that’s considered for the playoff. So our team has earned the right to be in there, regardless of what happens tomorrow.”