Kaidon Salter threw two touchdowns and ran for another and No. 24 Liberty scored the only points of the fourth quarter to defeat visiting New Mexico State 49-35 in the Conference USA championship game Friday night at Lynchburg, Va.
Salter passed for 319 yards and, rushed for 165 yards, teammate Quinton Cooley had three touchdown runs and CJ Daniels posted 157 receiving yards and a touchdown on seven receptions.
Liberty (13-0) is contending for the Group of 5 spot in the College Football Playoff’s upper bowl tier, so putting on a strong performance was essential in the quest to overtake Tulane in the pecking order. The Flames compiled 712 yards of total offense.
First-year Liberty coach Jamey Chadwell directed the Flames to the title in their initial season in Conference USA.
“If you’ve watched us for 13 weeks, we’re the best G5 team in this country,” Chadwell said. “We’ve talked about the value of this conference. There’s good football being played. I think if you look at what we’re able to do and what our conference has been able to do, I think it stacks up with any other team that is being considered (among the Group of 5).”
Diego Pavia threw for three touchdowns and ran for another for the Aggies (10-4), who lost in both trips to Lynchburg this year. The other was 33-17 on Sept. 9.
Freshman Blaze Berlowitz came on in relief and went 10-for-19 for 134 yards with a touchdown. Trent Hudson racked up 112 receiving yards on seven catches.
Despite all the points, there was never separation by more than one possession until the third quarter. After the Flames took a 28-21 lead on Cooley’s 4-yard touchdown run in the first two minutes of the third, Salter’s 20-yard pass to Daniels made it a 14-point game with 9:19 left in the period.
Twelve seconds later, however, New Mexico State was in the end zone on Pavia’s 75-yard pass play to Jonathan Brady. After Liberty missed a field goal, Berlowitz led a game-tying drive, throwing 11 yards to Hudson for the touchdown.
The Fames then drove 80 yards in nine plays to go ahead for good on Billy Lucas’ 2-yard run with 13:51 remaining. With Liberty leading 42-35, Brandon Bishop intercepted Berlowitz’s pass in the end zone with 9:42 left. The Fames then went 80 yards in fourth plays, with Salter running 35 yards for a touchdown.
New Mexico State had the upper hand early. Pavia ran 25 yards for the first points of the game, and he threw 10 yards to Ron Tiavaasue to put the Aggies ahead 14-7.
Cooley answered each score, on rushes of 1 yard and 12 yards, to tie the game at 14-14.
Liberty then took its first lead on Salter’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Noah Frith with 27 seconds left in the first half. But the Aggies had a quick response, pulling even with three seconds to play on Pavia’s 17-yard touchdown throw to Hudson.
“We’ve gotten to know our team better,” Chadwell said. “This is our first season (here as a coaching staff). I think that’s why we’ve gotten better throughout the season. We certainly understand the strengths of our players.”
–Field Level Media