Kings of the CUSA: Liberty Flames capture first Conference USA title over Aggies in offensive surge, 49-35
The 2023-24 season for the Liberty Flames has been one of making history. The first undefeated team, the first Conference USA Championship appearance — and yet, junior wide receiver CJ Daniels felt like the team didn’t even notice the ground they were breaking.
“I felt like 12-0 came up on us quick,” Daniels said. “Just living in the moment, not even knowing we’re making history.”
December 1 presented another chance to be history-makers, as the Flames took the field for the CUSA Championship against a respected opponent in the New Mexico State Aggies. While Liberty heartily defeated New Mexico in their Sept. 9 meeting, the Aggies had caught national attention since, taking down Auburn in a 31-10 beatdown just two weeks ago.
Now, on championship turf, the two would meet again.
The Aggies, driven by their dual-threat junior quarterback Diego Pavia, began the Championship contest in the same fashion they did in their initial meeting with the Flames — a methodical, run-heavy drive that resulted in a touchdown.
Pavia took the ball in himself from the 25-yard line, notching his fifth rushing score of the season.
With a 7-0 Aggie lead, the Flames took the field and responded with an effective offense of their own. Sophomore quarterback Kaidon Salter drove his team through the heart of the Aggies’ defense, finding his trusted tools in wide receivers CJ Daniels and Aaron Bedgood.
With New Mexico State on its heels, junior running back Quinton Cooley took off for a 20-yard gain before punching it in from the 1-yard line for the touchdown.
Pavia, however, continued to prove why he has been such an effective signal-caller all season. Liberty’s defense simply couldn’t tame the Aggies, who surged down the field for an 11-play, 75-yard drive in response. The drive culminated with a 10-yard touchdown grab by New Mexico tight end Ron Tiavaasue, the New Zealand native’s first touchdown of the season.
It seemed that neither defense could find an answer for the top pair of offenses in the CUSA. But as the Flames entered the red zone once again searching to even the score, the Aggies’ run defense forced Liberty to a crucial 4th-and-1 situation.
With the ball on the 8-yard line, Salter handed the ball off to his freshman running back Vaughn Blue. Blue dove into the sea of defenders but fell just shy of the line to gain.
The Flames defense, needing to muster a stop to quell the Aggies’ 14-7 lead, stepped up and forced a 3-and-out. Junior cornerback Kobe Singleton stepped up to make the 3rd-down stop, breaking up a pass intended for David Kordell.
Just three plays after the impressive defensive play, the Flames managed to find the end zone. Salter rolled to his right and saw Daniels, lofting his receiver a pass to the sideline. Daniels managed to get one foot in, moving the chains for a 32-yard gain.
Now, in the red zone once again, the Flames returned to their ground game to put another six points on the board. Cooley found a seam up the middle, barreling through defenders to find the red paint. Cooley finished the night with 71 yards on the ground.
With the first half winding down, Liberty’s defense forced New Mexico State off the field with yet another stellar pass breakup on 3rd down — this time from junior corner Amarian Williams.
Only 1:51 remained on the clock for Salter to drive his team to the go-ahead score. A pair of passes to Daniels and sophomore tight end Austin Henderson put the Flames at the Aggies’ 26-yard line.
On a 3rd-and-13 play, Salter found senior wide receiver Noah Frith at the 18-yard line, who spun around a New Mexico cornerback before taking off and extending the ball to breach the goal line. The senior relished in the moment, as a sea of fans roared for the receiver playing in his final home game.
“Liberty has the best fans. That’s a fact,” Salter said. “They most definitely brought everybody out and supported us today for this championship game.”
The touchdown was more than a moment of emotion — it was a piece of history. With the touchdown, Salter broke Malik Willis’ record for total touchdowns in a season (40) and Buckshot Calvert’s record of passing touchdowns in a season (29).
“I think what goes unsaid is (Kaidon has) been a great leader for our group and our team,” Chadwell said. “The quarterback is the leader regardless whether you want to be or not. He’s really embraced that piece of it. I think that’s why you’ve seen our offense have so much success.”
Pavia, however, remained composed. With 25 seconds on the clock, the quarterback tore up Liberty’s secondary, managing to connect with Trent Hudson for a 17-yard touchdown before the half reached its end.
With the first half of championship football in the books, the score remained tied at 21 apiece with the conference crown up for grabs. And for Liberty, the question was simple — how do you shut down Diego Pavia?
“We just had to adjust halftime to certain things that they were doing and contain the quarterback. The quarterback was rushing and that was hurting us,” senior defensive back Brandon Bishop said. “He was scrambling just running around … That was the most difficult thing that we had to adjust to.”
Liberty’s last meeting with New Mexico State was remembered for the Flames’ elite performance in the second half. Liberty broke away in the game’s final two quarters, securing a 33-17 victory.
The Flames would try to do the same nearly three months later.
Liberty opened the second half with a 64-yard pass to Daniels, whose potential touchdown was negated by an illegal block in the back. Regardless, the Flames had the ball at New Mexico’s 17-yard line and would punch it in with a 4-yard Cooley rush.
On the team’s ensuing offensive drive, productive rushes from senior running backs Aaron Bedgood and Billy Lucas put the Aggies’ defense on its heels once again. Salter then dropped back and sent a strike the way of his primary target in Daniels, who secured the pass as he fell to his back. The Flames were now up two scores on their conference foe, 35-21.
Just one play later, however, the Aggies reminded Liberty that a victory wouldn’t come easy. Pavia rolled to his right and launched a 75-yard pass to Jonathan Brady, who leaped over Williams to secure the catch and break for the end zone.
Minutes after, Pavia would exit the game with injury. Aggies’ freshman Blaze Berlowitz stepped up in his absence, finding Hudson for a touchdown to return the contest to an even one.
Liberty went back to the ground the next drive, wearing down the Aggies with seven consecutive rushing plays, highlighted by a 43-yard burst from Lucas. Lucas would eventually be the one to dive into the end zone for a 2-yard gain and another Liberty touchdown.
In what seemed to be the Aggies’ final gasp for life, Berlowitz heaved a pass deep to wide receiver Eli Stowers. Bishop went step-for-step with Stowers, wrestling the ball away from the receiver with one arm and coming down with possession.
“Man, it was surreal getting that interception,” Bishop said. “I knew my team needed that play and our backs were against the wall … Our coaches harped on that this week about refocusing whether things are good, bad or ugly. And that’s what we kept on doing (with) these drives. No matter what, we just kept refocusing, and that’s what happened on that play.”
The turnover made it apparent that this game would likely end in the Flame’s favor, and a 35-yard rushing touchdown from Salter just plays later cemented it. The pocket collapsed on the quarterback, but he shockingly escaped and dodged defenders left and right to score a stunning touchdown.
“The Lord’s blessed him with just a great natural ability,” Chadwell said. “Then the confidence that he’s playing with … He was wise enough not to run out there and do something to potentially be a turnover or lost play. Then he made some people miss. That’s a gift that he has.”
As the Flames knelt down in the game’s final second, fans instantly stormed the field, commemorating the team’s first Conference USA crown.
“I think for us as a team, being our first year in the conference, we definitely wanted to make a statement,” Daniels said. “I think every week we just took it as the next game … We’re here now, 13-0, Conference USA Champions, man. It’s a blessing.”
Teammates embraced postgame, relishing in the accomplishment of not only a perfect conference season, but the national recognition earned for the Liberty Flames. The only box that remains unchecked for Liberty now this season is a bowl game victory.
“Our team has earned the right to be in (a New Year’s Six Bowl) regardless of what happens tomorrow,” Chadwell said. “But if you go all 13 weeks and match us up with who we’re competing against for that spot, all the measurables, all the margins of victory, the people we beat that are bowl eligible … We have more wins, more margin of victory, and we’ve dominated.”
The Flames’ bowl game opponent will be announced on Sunday, Dec. 3.
Cory is the sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on X