Flames fall to New Mexico State 49-14 in last regular season home game
Two unsettling defeats to follow up historic victories against the BYU Cougars and Arkansas Razorbacks was not the direction the Liberty Flames hoped for their season to trend.
This downward spiral was anticipated to change Nov. 26 as Liberty welcomed the New Mexico State Aggies to Williams Stadium for its final regular-season matchup.
What transpired, however, was an unexpected finish to the season, which handed Liberty its worst loss since its 2018 matchup against Auburn, where the War Eagles reigned supreme 53-0.
Liberty football saw one of its most lackluster performances in recent memory, and any energy the team could have felt entering this final matchup was marred by national reports looming that its head coach may indeed be destined for another program.
Rumors swirled early Saturday morning that Head Coach Hugh Freeze was expected to lead the Flames one final time against the Aggies before taking the role of head coach at Auburn shortly after.
While Freeze has been linked to the Auburn opening for quite some time, all eyes turned to him for the job after lead candidate Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin announced that he would remain with the Rebels following their 22-24 loss to Mississippi State on Thanksgiving.
This news rattled the Flames players, who approached Freeze in the locker room prior to the game to find out if what they were hearing was true.
“I haven’t been offered a job, but it certainly was hard to refute that report,” Freeze said. “It was bothering some people. I just hate it … I was asked directly by (my team to address it), so I did. I think it had something to do with our flatness, I’m sure, but I’m not one to dodge people that I care for and love’s questions.”
Forced to ignore the rumors, the Flames had no choice but to take the field one last time in front of the home crowd.
For a team that has seen a constant shuffle at quarterback this season, this game was no different, as Charlie Brewer made the start for the first time since Liberty’s season opener against Southern Miss.
Both teams traded three-and-outs to start the game until Aggies’ quarterback Diego Pavia drove his team down the field, floating a pass to wide receiver Jonathan Brady for the touchdown. Liberty had only 10 defensive players on the field for the play, marking the first of many mishaps for the Flames defense on the day.
While Brewer and Liberty would attempt to respond on the ensuing drive, the offense stalled at the 34-yard line, and a missed field goal from kicker Nick Brown set up the Aggies with decent field position to extend the lead.
The Flames defense, however, stood strong as New Mexico looked to gain a two-score advantage. On just the fourth play of the drive, linebacker Mike Smith Jr. came in with a head of steam to punch the ball out from wide receiver Bryce Childress, allowing defensive end TreShaun Clark to make the recovery.
The Flames would capitalize on the Aggies’ misstep, as running back T.J. Green broke loose for a 31-yard rush, punching it into the end zone two plays later for a one-yard rushing touchdown to even the scoreboard.
The Aggies offense, hungry to lead its team to bowl eligibility, would then put together a methodical, 16-play drive that saw Pavia break down the defense with his rushing ability.
When it seemed Liberty was poised to make a red-zone stop, however, cornerback Daijahn Anthony picked up a consequential pass interference penalty, allowing Pavia to waltz in for a two-yard rushing touchdown.
From this point on, matters would go from bad to abysmal for the Flames. Brewer’s pass intended for wide receiver CJ Yarborough would find the hands of cornerback Bryce Jackson on Liberty’s next drive, prompting Freeze to make another change at signal caller.
Brewer exited the game having completed 5-8 passes for 34 yards.
“Other than the one pick, I thought he was playing pretty solid,” Freeze said of Brewer’s performance. “I think his hand still bothers him. It’s not coming out like it did in fall camp.”
The Aggies immediately capitalized off the Flames’ offensive woes, as Pavia connected with wide receiver Star Thomas for a 39-yard touchdown pass, shifting the scoreboard to 21-7.
Redshirt freshman Kaidon Salter then trotted on the field with hopes of bringing energy to his team in any capacity, but the drive resulted in yet another Liberty turnover. Salter fumbled on the quarterback keep on the fourth play of the drive, which was recovered by NMSU linebacker Keyshaun Elliot.
After New Mexico extended its lead to 28-7 just a few drives later, Johnathan Bennett became the third quarterback of the day to captain the offense.
Bennett finished his day 8-13 for 72 yards, failing to find the end zone. After the Aggies put two more touchdowns on the board to extend their lead to 42-7, Bennett would commit the offense’s third turnover with a fumble as he tried to shovel the ball to wide receiver Noah Frith.
Bennett’s fumble marked the Flames’ 23rd turnover by a quarterback this season. While Freeze was hopeful to only play one quarterback prior to the matchup, the carousel continued.
“I was hopeful that Charlie was going to light it up, but all three had good practice times, and (I) felt like we could move the ball with all three,” Freeze said. “I think we did at times, but all three turned it over also and took some sacks when we should have thrown it away. (Those are) things that we’ve got to coach better.”
The scoreboard displayed a final of 49-14 when the clock hit zero, as Kaidon Salter managed to connect with wide receiver Jaivian Lofton in the final minutes of regulation.
Liberty’s defense, however, simply had no answer for the efficiency of NMSU’s Pavia, who ended the game 16-21 for 214 yards and three touchdowns, picking up 137 yards on the ground.
“It was unlike anything we’ve experienced this year from our defense,” Freeze said. “We didn’t tackle well the last three games. We just looked like a really tired football team.”
This was the second time in Aggies’ program history that they defeated the Liberty Flames, defying the odds and rolling over a team that was ranked No. 17 just weeks prior.
“I’m certainly not going to take anything away from Coach (Jerry) Kill and his crew,” Freeze said. “They were hungry to get bowl eligible. They beat us in every facet of the game, so give them credit. It’s certainly disappointing and tough to sleep with this one.”
Liberty will now wait to find out which bowl game they will partake in, as the College Football Playoff committee will release final rankings and bowl game matchups Dec. 4 at noon on ESPN.
Annie Cory is the Sports Editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on Twitter @anniecory1