Flames football claims first CUSA victory over New Mexico State Aggies, 33-17

The Flames football team began its era of CUSA football with a dominant win over interconference opponent New Mexico State under the lights of Williams Stadium Sept. 9. The Flames defeated the Aggies 33-17 in a display that thrilled their 20,000 home fans. 

“Anytime that you’re the first ever to do something, no matter what happens with this group … they’re always going to be remembered as the first win,” Flames Head Coach Jamey Chadwell said. “That’s something we wanted to accomplish, and we talked a lot about that. Obviously, 1-0 is the most important thing, but we had a chance to make history, to write history. Our quote to end our video today was ‘Victors get to write history.’ And so, we wanted to make sure we were (the victors).”

The game’s first two drives presented a one-sided view of the game ahead. The Aggies opened the game with a dominant offensive drive on the ground, rushing for 60 yards and a touchdown. The Flames offense ran onto the field to respond, only to fumble on a pitch play that the Aggies’ defense was clearly anticipating. After the fumble from the offense, the Flames defense rallied, forcing a New Mexico punt after just three plays. 

Following the Aggies’ punt, Flames quarterback Kaidon Salter, who was publicly named the starter just minutes before last week’s win over Bowling Green, gave the Flames their first points of the evening. Salter took the snap, dropped back, and waited for the right moment before ripping the ball downfield to a wide-open CJ Daniels, who made a brilliant catch, spin and dive to give the Flames 6 points on the board.

Tied at 7, the Aggies marched back down the field on a long, drawn-out drive that ended in a field goal for the visitors. Down 3, Salter and the Flames offense jogged back onto the field and scored another touchdown of their own, this time on the ground, as Salter kept the ball and ran it in from three yards out. 

That touchdown was a result of one of the best plays of the Flames’ new season. Salter, from his own 30-yard line, dropped back to unleash a 60-yard bomb that dropped into the arms of Daniels, who was being double-covered by the Aggies. 

The Flames and Aggies traded touchdowns, making the score 20-17. The Flames ended the half with a kick that sailed through the uprights, leaving the score 23-17. Sophomore safety Brylan Green provided a bright spot for the Flames’ defense as he pulled down his second interception of the season and another impressive pass breakup. 

The Flames kept the momentum rolling in their favor after the half.  Coming out of the locker room, Liberty marched all the way down for another Salter rushing touchdown. That drive extended the Flames’ lead to 13 and took a massive chunk of time off the clock, going 75 yards in just over 9 minutes. 

The Flames scored once more off a field goal from sophomore kicker Teagan Lenderink, but the Liberty defense played some of its best ball of the new season, holding the Aggies to a scoreless second half. 

“I thought our defense stepped up in the second half,” Head Coach Chadwell said. “I didn’t think (the defense) played overly well the first half. But that drive … offensively was awesome. … I think that gave the defense a lot of confidence to say ‘hey, if we can just go out and do what we’re capable (of doing), they can’t come back.’”

In his second consecutive game as the Flames’ starter, Salter again showed out for the home fans. Salter ended Saturday with 15 of 25 completions in the air for 276 yards and nine rushes for 47 yards and two rushing touchdowns. His poise and confidence in the pocket allowed the Flames to complete more deep passes than in their previous game, which added a new dimension to their offense.

“I thought he played extremely well,” Chadwell said about Salter. “He stood in the pocket, made some nice throws. Obviously, we had the one turnover, but you never felt like he put the ball in danger and threw it up (on) certain (plays). He made some nice runs when we needed to in some third-down situations. This is the most, in my short time (at Liberty), confidence I’ve seen him play with, which is good. You want your quarterback to have some confidence and feel like he can make some plays.”

Junior wideout CJ Daniels, who recently recovered from an ACL injury, ended Saturday’s matchup with four catches for 129 yards and one touchdown on a team-high seven targets. Those 129 yards are just six yards short of tying his career high, which he set in October 2021 against North Texas. 

“Yeah, CJ, he’s a big part of the offense,” Salter said. “He’s a weapon that we have on the outside and even moved into slot for some players. He has been hurt, but today he came out and showed everybody that he’s back … He made the great plays that he needed to make to get us down the field.”

The Salter-to-Daniels connection has been in the works for a while, and is one the two have been working to cultivate over the offseason. 

“That’s my roommate,” Daniels said about Salter. “That’s perfect for me… I’m a roommate with the quarterback. So, it just really goes back to the offseason. We put a lot of time in; just doing extra just for timing … just for him to get to know me and for me to get to know him. So, it definitely goes back to definitely the offseason.”

The thunder-and-lightning pairing of junior Quinton Cooley and sophomore Billy Lucas combined for 196 yards on the ground on 35 carries. Cooley set a career high for himself in both carries and yards for the second week in a row. 

“Those guys play off each other,” Chadwell said. “They run hard, they run through some tackles, and they’ve given us a good combination of being able to run between the tackles and still get enough outside.”

On the defensive side of the ball, the Flames’ secondary followed up their five-interception performance against Bowling Green with another impressive showing. They held the Aggies to just 150 passing yards and one touchdown, while forcing a pair of interceptions. Green and senior free safety Brandon Bishop were the two to take the ball away from the Aggies offense. 

Green is a rising star for the Flames, and his recent emergence in this new season has caught many by surprise. In his two starts this season he’s tallied two interceptions, one pass-breakup, and 10 tackles. 

“He’s playing well,” Chadwell said about Green. “He didn’t do a lot with us in the spring (because he was playing baseball)… And then this summer he really started coming into his own. I mean, (our coaching staff) thinks he has NFL potential if he completely commits himself to football.”

With Saturday’s victory, the Flames begin their season 2-0 and 1-0 in conference play. Next up for them is a road trip to Buffalo, New York to face the University of Buffalo Bulls Sept. 16.  

Palsgrove is the asst. sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow him on X

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