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Unbeaten Liberty looks to hoist CUSA trophy against New Mexico State in title tilt

Scott Ratcliffe
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The most memorable season in the 50-year history of the Liberty football program continues on Friday night in the Conference USA Championship Game against New Mexico State at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg (7 p.m., CBS Sports Network).

The Flames (12-0, 8-0), who moved up a spot to No. 24 in the latest CFP rankings (they’re also ranked 20th in the Associated Press Top 25 and 22nd in the Coaches Poll), completed their first undefeated regular season on Saturday, winning at UTEP, 42-28.

In his first season as LU head coach, Jamey Chadwell revealed that one of the keys to the team’s success has been simply getting more familiar with his players, on and off the field.

“I think the players have done a fantastic job of believing in each other and believing in what we’re doing,” said the coach, “and each week, they’ve just built off the previous week and have not been satisfied. They’ve stayed hungry to get better, and when you do that, good things can happen.”

Good things certainly happened for the Flames in the season finale, when they posted an eye-popping, school-record (since joining the FBS) 441 of their 469 total yards via the rush against the Miners, with Wake Forest transfer running back Quinton Cooley leading the charge with a three-touchdown performance.

Ironically, the Flames didn’t have anyone rush for over 100 yards, as seven different players went for at least 30 — Cooley had a team-high 83, Aaron Bedgood added 82, sophomore quarterback Kaidon Salter 76, Billy Lucas 69, James Jointer Jr. 47, Vaughn Blue 38 and Malik Caper 30.

“It was pretty dynamic,” Salter said Tuesday. “Just being able to get the ball in different ball-carriers’ hands and seeing what everybody can do with the ball in their hand out of the backfield. Just being able to see Billy, Cooley and James get into the end zone, that was pretty amazing.”

For the visiting Aggies (10-3, 7-1), their only conference loss came on the same Williams Stadium field, a 33-17 Liberty victory on Sept. 9.

Salter has registered 2,431 yards and 29 touchdowns (5 interceptions) this season, while also accounting for 899 yards and 11 more scores on the ground. He tossed two touchdown passes and ran for two more scores in the first meeting against NMSU, but knows that both teams have come a long way since September.

“We just know that New Mexico State is not the same team that we beat at the beginning of the year, but also, we’re not the same team that we were at the beginning of the year,” Salter said. “So we’ve just got to understand that both teams are going to come out and play their best, and it’s going to be who prepares best and who wants it more at the end of the day.”

Added Chadwell of facing the Aggies a second time: “There’s not going to be any surprises. You have an understanding of what your opponent is because you’ve seen them up close and personal as far as their personnel and things of that nature. And so I think it’s a unique deal and I like it because you get to decide a true champion.”

Cooley is a 5-foot-7, 210-pound junior who has racked up 1,251 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season. LU junior wideout CJ Daniels leads the team in receiving with 831 yards and 9 touchdowns on just 40 catches.

Senior linebacker Tyren Dupree is the unquestioned leader on defense, as evidenced by a team-high 107 tackles (58 solo). Liberty’s defense has recorded 25 sacks and a nation-best 20 interceptions in 2023.

“The coaches have done a great job of preparing us…,” Dupree told reporters, “it’s all one piece, like we wouldn’t have those interceptions if the D-line wasn’t getting pressure, or half of [the interceptions] were tips, so great coverage, tips, it’s kind of like a team thing… it’s every piece — D-line, linebackers, back end, they all have to be on the same page.”

The Aggies are currently riding an eight-game winning streak, including a 31-10 upset on the road at Jordan-Hare Stadium over SEC foe Auburn on Nov. 18, a game in which the homestanding Tigers were 25.5-point favorites. The Aggies’ last loss was at Hawaii on Sept. 23.

NMSU head coach Jerry Kill is in his second season with the Aggies, and despite a poor 2-3 start to the 2023 campaign, he has his team — which was picked to finish fifth in the CUSA standings — heading to a bowl game for the second year in a row, something that has only happened one other time in school history.

Junior quarterback Diego Pavia is the heart of the Aggies’ offense, as he has thrown for 2,727 yards and 23 touchdowns (8 interceptions) this season, and also leads the team in rushing with 806 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground.

When asked about Pavia’s skillset, Chadwell used an old adage — you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.

“He’s a winner and he’s a competitor,” Chadwell said of Pavia. “He’s the type you watch on video and you think you have him and he just finds a way to get out and make a play, and he’s so dangerous when he’s out of the pocket with his running or with his throwing ability. And he just has a great confidence — even from our first game — just watching him and the things that he did, you’re amazed by the competitiveness that he has.”

The Aggies, who had won just 26 out of their 109 games across the 10 seasons before Kill took over, have won 17 of 26 since the coaching change. They are evenly balanced offensively, averaging 217.4 yards per game via the pass and 205.8 via the rush. Wideouts Jonathan Brady and Trent Hudson have combined for over 900 yards and 11 touchdown catches.

As of Wednesday morning, Liberty is listed as a 10-point favorite, with an over-under of 56.5, according to ESPN Bet. The Flames aren’t planning on making any major adjustments, but will treat Friday’s game against the Aggies like every other one thus far — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

“It comes down to just preparing the same way,” said Dupree. “These games get bigger and bigger because your record may be building, but we just try to keep it as if it’s the next game. That’s the only game we have, so we focus on it.”

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.