Home Scott Ratcliffe: Liberty not going to let Fiesta Bowl loss diminish 2023 season

Scott Ratcliffe: Liberty not going to let Fiesta Bowl loss diminish 2023 season

Scott Ratcliffe
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Liberty’s dreams of an upset win over eighth-ranked Oregon and an undefeated season came crashing down in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl on Monday in Glendale, Ariz., as record-setting quarterback Bo Nix and the Ducks took control in the second quarter and rolled to a 45-6 victory.

Nix threw for 363 yards and a Fiesta Bowl-record (and Oregon bowl-game record) 5 touchdowns — 4 of them in the second quarter alone — to lead the Ducks (12-2) to the lopsided win.

Tez Johnson racked up a game-high 172 receiving yards and a score on 11 catches, while Bucky Irving rushed for a game-high 117 yards and another TD, as the Flames’ memorable run came to an end with a record of 13-1.

“Obviously, a lot of credit goes to Oregon, they have a fine team and they absolutely laid it on us today,” said Liberty first-year head coach Jamey Chadwell. “We knew we would have to play really well to compete and have a chance to win the game and they did a lot of things that made it challenging on us, so hats off to them.”

Oregon was playing in a New Year’s Six game for the third time in the past five seasons, while Liberty was the first team to represent Conference USA on the big stage, playing in obviously the biggest game in program history.

Things couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start for the Flames, who received the opening kickoff and scored a touchdown on their initial drive for the seventh-straight game.

An option pitch to Liberty’s Aaron Bedgood on the second play from scrimmage went for 33 yards into Oregon territory, and then a late hit out of bounds was tacked on at the end of the play, putting the ball inside the Ducks’ 30-yard line.

Four plays later, Kaidon Salter’s 17-yard, play-action pass to tight end Bentley Hanshaw in the end zone gave the Flames a 6-0 lead with 12:37 left in the first quarter, as Nick Brown’s point-after attempt sailed wide left.

It was all Ducks from there, as Liberty went on to punt on its next four possessions, while not being able to contain Oregon’s second-ranked offensive attack.

Nix led a drive into the red zone on the Ducks’ first drive, but a third-down pass was batted down at the line by Liberty’s Bryce Dixon brought Camden Lewis on for a 37-yard field goal to make it a 6-3 ballgame with 9:06 on the first-quarter clock.

The Ducks went ahead to stay with 12:53 left in the first half, as Nix found Gary Bryant Jr. from 2 yards out, and Oregon led, 10-6. Irving set up the score with three runs for 54 yards (and one reception for 10 more) on the drive, including a 44-yard scamper to move the ball into striking distance.

“We knew that the defense was going to continue to get us the ball back,” Nix said of crossing the goal line for the first time. “So we just had to go down there and score the first time, and once we did that, once Bucky had that long run, that really started things.”

After a Liberty three-and-out, Nix had his team back in the end zone, completing a 2-yard toss to Terrance Ferguson on a busted play to stretch the lead to 17-6 with 7:13 until halftime.

Salter was looking to build some momentum when Liberty got the ball back, but his pass to CJ Daniels — which would’ve been enough to advance the chains — fell incomplete, and it wasn’t long before Nix and the Ducks struck again.

With 3:50 on the clock, Nix completed a push-pass to Kenyon Sadiq from 3 yards out, and the Flames trailed, 24-6, and desperately needed a response on their ensuing drive.

Liberty was on the move at the Oregon 34-yard line when Salter’s pass intended for Treon Sibley bounced out of his grasp and appeared to be intercepted by Steve Stephens IV with just over a minute left in the half.

The play was reviewed, and the ball clearly hit the turf, but the call was upheld, much to the dismay of the Liberty faithful. Oregon capitalized, as Nix led one more scoring drive, capped off by a 17-yard pass to Traeshon Holden with 3 seconds left, and the Ducks took a comfortable 31-6 advantage at the break.

The lead ballooned to 32 with 11:11 left in the third quarter, as a reverse flea-flicker screen pass from Nix to Johnson went for 24 yards down the sideline. Liberty got inside the Oregon 20-yard line on the ensuing possession, but Salter’s pass attempt on fourth-and-5 from the 18 was knocked down by Winston, and the Ducks took over with 6:40 left in the third quarter. Irving put an exclamation point on the afternoon with a 1-yard touchdown plunge on the second play of the fourth.

The Flames had one more chance to put points on the board on their final drive, but Daniels fumbled near midfield with 6:07 remaining, and the Ducks eventually went to a knee to drain the clock.

When all was said and done, Nix, making his FBS-record 61st career start, set a single-season completion-percentage record (364 for 470; 77.44 percent) before sitting out the majority of the fourth quarter. He bested former Alabama QB Mac Jones, who completed 77.36 of his passes (311 for 402) in 2020.

Nix, who completed 28 of his 35 attempts on the day, also set Oregon single-season program records for touchdown passes (45) and passing yards (4,508), both of which belonged to Marcus Mariota during his Heisman-winning season in 2014.

The Ducks registered 584 yards of total offense (401 passing, 183 rushing), compared to just 294 for Liberty. Salter completed 15 of 24 passes for 126 yards and the early touchdown toss, while picking up 25 rushing yards on 10 carries, both numbers well off his season averages (211.5 passing ypg; 81.8 rushing ypg). Quinton Cooley rushed for a team-high 79 yards on eight carries, while Daniels led Liberty in receiving with 79 yards on eight catches.

“I’m proud of our team,” said Chadwell. “We kept fighting. We had some opportunities there, especially in the first half and some things couldn’t go our way to maybe keep it closer and then have a chance, but we kept playing through four quarters, and that’s hard to do when you get beat like the way we were.

“But I’m not going to let today — and our team’s not going to let today — diminish what they were able to accomplish over 13 weeks.”

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.