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History made: Flames topple Aggies to win first FBS conference championship

In a back-and-forth affair, Liberty Flames Football defeated New Mexico State 49-35 in the Conference USA Championship at Williams Stadium on Friday, capping off a perfect 13-0 record as a conference newcomer.

Liberty defeated New Mexico State 49-35 to win its first ever FBS conference championship. (Photo by KJ Jugar)

A crowd of 20,077 was on hand to witness Liberty make history on the mountain. The fog and light drizzle didn’t dampen the spirit of Flames Nation. Fans enjoyed a Pregame Bash in the Liberty University Indoor Practice Facility, featuring performances by each team’s drumline and cheerleading squads. Both team’s marching bands again took the field to perform during halftime.

Students and fans stormed the field for the trophy ceremony, rallying around the newly crowned Conference USA Champions. Head Coach Jamey Chadwell joined his players for brief on-field interviews.

“They are a special group of young men,” Chadwell said. “We challenge them to embrace the change, embrace the process. We told them to trust in each other and trust in the Word of God. Almost a year to the date (of my hiring), we are conference champions.”

He quoted the team’s theme verses, from Psalm 20, as their motivation: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

Chadwell was also adamant about his team being deserving of a New Year’s Six Bowl appearance.

“If you’ve watched us for 13 weeks, we are the best Group of Five team in this country,” he said. “Six wins over bowl-eligible teams with an average margin of victory of 17 points. We have dominated our opponents, and we belong in a New Year’s Six.”

Liberty is currently the second highest ranked Group of Five school in the country at No. 24 in CFP rankings, trailing No. 22 Tulane.

The championship win extended the Flames’ program records for wins in a season (13), home wins in a season (8), and winning streak (13) and makes the Flames the first FBS team in Virginia ever to win 13 games in a season.

Head Coach Jamey Chadwell celebrated with the team after the victory. (Photo by KJ Jugar)

Quarterback Kaidon Salter was named the CUSA Football Championship MVP, accounting for 484 of Liberty’s total offensive yards. He rushed for 165 yards and a touchdown, while completing 20-of-25 passing attempts for 319 yards and two touchdowns. During the ceremony, Salter credited his teammates with helping him keep the offense on track.

“We are one. We come as one, we play as one. Everything we do is for each other,” he said. “Today was a championship game, but to us it was just us playing against each other. Ain’t no body beating Liberty but us. We knew we had to go out there and compete against ourselves, and that’s what we did.”

At the post-game press conference, both Chadwell and the players credited Liberty fans with cheering the squad to victory.

“Our student body and our fans stay through all four quarters,” Chadwell said. “When we need them in big moments, they are loud and they are after it. They are booing when the bad calls happen, and doing all of those things. It’s special, and I know our team appreciates that because we have traveled different places and people don’t have that.”

This victory harkened back to the vision of Liberty founder Dr. Jerry Falwell and his mission to make the university not only prestigious academically but also competitive athletically.

“This (win) wasn’t just about us today,” Salter said. “This runs years back to Liberty’s foundation. We went out there and did it for that.”

The back-and-forth heavyweight bout was tied 35-35 after three quarters of play before Liberty added two of its five rushing touchdowns in the fourth to secure the victory.

The nation’s No. 1 rushing attack was once again on full display, seeing Liberty rush for 393 yards on 45 carries (8.7 yards per carry).

Quinton Cooley moved into second place on Liberty’s single-season rushing touchdown total, getting three more on the day to give him 16 on the season. He finished the game with 11 carries for 71 yards.

CJ Daniels was Salter’s top target, matching his career-high with 157 yards on seven receptions. The junior also pulled in his 10th receiving touchdown of 2023, moving him into third place on Liberty’s single-season touchdown receptions list.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Kaidon Salter was named CUSA Football Championship MVP and accounted for 484 of Liberty’s offensive yards. (Photo by Chase Gyles)

When the Flames needed a defensive stop during the fourth quarter, the nation’s No. 1 team in interceptions picked off its 21st of the season. Up 42-35 early in the fourth quarter, Brandon Bishop intercepted a potential game-tying touchdown pass in New Mexico State’s end zone with just under 10 minutes left to play.

Four plays later, Salter scored on a 35-yard touchdown run to put the Flames up two scores and in control of the game.

Bishop finished the game with a career-high 11 tackles and his third interception of the year. Joseph Carter followed with 10 stops, his second double-digit tackle effort of 2023.

The Flames now turn their eyes to Sunday afternoon for the College Football Playoff selection show on ESPN at noon, when the team will find out the location and opponent for its fifth straight bowl appearance. (For the most up-to-date bowl game information, including purchasing tickets, visit  LibertyFlames.com/BowlCentral.)

Liberty is currently 3-1 in bowl game appearances, after winning back-to-back Cure Bowls in 2019 and 2020 and securing a LendingTree Bowl victory in 2021. The Flames fell to Toledo in the 2022 Roofclaim.com Boca Raton Bowl.

(Photo by Brooke McDuffee)
(Photo by Chase Gyles)
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