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Liberty dominates NMSU at Conference USA Championship

Temperatures fell and so did the freezing rain at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Virginia, which made locals huddle together to keep warm at the 2023 Conference USA Championship game. The Aggies were defeated by Liberty in a predicted victory, 35-49.  

Once the stadium gates opened, Liberty University fans rushed into the stands, wearing school colors painted on their faces and chests. Fans were locked in and delivered their support to their teams, while only a few NMSU colors lined the stands.  

Within minutes of the first quarter, NMSU quarterback Diego Pavia ran a touchdown scoring drive, his sixth of the season. Leaving Liberty in search of plays to make up for the deficit NMSU created, the Flames quickly made a comeback and tied with the Aggies. Flames quarterback, Kaidon Salter, led the night with 165 rushing yards. Liberty also came on top in the number of first downs made, with 35 first downs marked for the Flames and 28 for the Aggies.  

The Liberty Flames get ready to hike the ball and attempt to secure another first down in the second quarter of the 2023 Conference USA Championship game against the New Mexico State Aggies on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023 at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Virginia. (Photo by Noah Apodaca/Kokopelli)

Moving into the second quarter, Aggie fans in Lynchburg looked a bit weary as the Flames extended their lead. However, with 30 seconds left in the first half, Diego Pavia once again proved that he has a strong arm by delivering the ball to wide receiver Trent Hudson. At this point, NMSU fans went into halftime feeling a bit more confident that the Aggies could potentially take a conference championship title back home. 

Following halftime performances by NMSU’s Pride band and the Liberty band, game time returned and temperatures got even colder. However, rain showers let up and allowed some comfort to return to the stands. 

Liberty quickly exerted their lead over the Aggies within the first few minutes of the third quarter, where the score sat 21-35, but NMSU was not ready to throw in the towel. Once again, another Aggie touchdown was made, tying the score 35-35 with just over two minutes left in the third quarter.  

The back-and-forth style of play between the two teams was a constant sight for most of the night, but the latter part of the third quarter was when the Aggies experienced some noticeable slippage. Fans began to notice Pavia was not on the field, instead, he was sitting on the bench while freshman Blaze Berlowitz took his spot. In a postgame press conference, head coach Jerry Kill said Pavia played as much as he could on an injured shoulder, but he just couldn’t go any further.  

“Our starting quarterback came in here, who didn’t practice all week, and played with a shoulder that was messed up, but he gave everything he had,” Kill said. “He’s the toughest kid I’ve ever been around, you can quote me on that, and I’ve coached for 40 years.”  

Toward the end of the game, NMSU just couldn’t keep up with the Flames as they scored another touchdown against the Aggies and officially solidified their win as the 2023 Conference USA champion. This was Liberty’s first year in the league, with a winning streak of 13-0.  

At the postgame press conference, Kill, Hudson, wide receiver Jonathan Brady and linebacker Keyshaun Elliott all looked disappointed in their loss against Liberty. “Our kids played hard, we didn’t play well all the time, but they played hard, and I wouldn’t want to coach anyone else,” Kill said.  

2023 Conference USA champions, No. 24 Liberty Flames, join the media following their victory at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Virginia on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023. (Photo by Noah Apodaca/Kokopelli)

Shortly after, Liberty head coach Jamey Chadwell was joined by several of his players, one of whom was crowned the 2023 Conference USA MVP, quarterback Kaidon Salters.

“I feel like today I just went out and I had fun,” Salter said. “That was the main goal today. Although this was a championship game and a big game to everybody, to us, this was just the next one, and we just wanted to go out there and play for each other today.” 

Now that the 2023 Conference USA Championship has concluded, Liberty is looking forward to potentially snagging a spot in one of the New Year’s Six college football playoff games.

Overall, while Aggie nation was hoping for a win against Liberty, the Aggies still had a stunning inaugural season in Conference USA, finishing the season 10-3 and winning against New Mexico and Texas rivals.

2023 Conference USA Championship

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Diego Pavia (No. 10), quarterback for the NMSU Aggies, makes a play against the Liberty Flames at the 2023 Conference USA Championship on Dec. 1, 2023 in Lynchburg, Virginia. (Photo by Jenni Hazlett/Kokopelli)

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