LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Kaidon Salter threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, and undefeated No. 20 Liberty maintained its New Year’s Six bowl hopes, beating New Mexico State 49-35 in the Conference USA championship game Friday night.
Salter completed 20 of 25 passes for 319 yards and rushed 12 times for 165 yards in a dominant performance for the Flames (13-0, 9-0), who could end up playing on New Year’s Day as the top-ranked Group of Five . team if No. 17 Tulane falls to SMU in Saturday’s American Athletic Conference title game.
With the game tied at 35, Billy Lucas ran for a 2-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter to put Liberty ahead to stay. On New Mexico State’s next possession, Brandon Bishop stepped in front of Eli Stowers and made a one-handed interception of third-string quarterback Blaze Berlowitz’s pass in the end zone.
Four plays later, Salter turned a broken play into a 35-yard touchdown run. He was named MVP of the game.
Diego Pavia threw three touchdown passes and ran for a score for the Aggies (10-4, 7-1) while splitting reps with Berlowitz, who hadn’t thrown a pass all season and also had a touchdown throw. New Mexico State’s eight-game winning streak ended.
The Flames, with the nation’s No. 1 rushing offense, rushed for 393 yards. Quinton Cooley had 11 carries for 71 yards and three touchdowns, Lucas finished with 86 yards on 14 carries and Aaron Bedgood had 72 yards on five carries. Liberty finished with 712 yards of offense, had 35 first downs and didn’t turn the ball over.
Despite making few defensive stops, New Mexico State stayed close until the fourth quarter. After Salter’s 20-yard touchdown pass to CJ Daniels put Liberty up 35-21 in the third quarter, Pavia threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Brady on the next play from scrimmage.
Liberty’s next possession ended in a missed field goal. Berlowitz tied the game with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Trent Hudson with 2:57 left in the third.
Hudson had seven receptions for 112 yards and two touchdowns. Pavia completed 11 of 18 passes for 188 yards and 45 rushing yards. Berlowitz was 10 of 19 for 134 yards.
New Mexico State: The Aggies’ winning streak included a win over Auburn, their first against a Southeastern Conference opponent in 28 tries.
Liberty: The Flames became the first Virginia team to win 13 games in a season. They won the ninth conference title in school history and first at the FBS level after playing as an independent for the previous four seasons. Liberty won eight titles between 2007 and 2016 as a member of the Big South Conference.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE SURVEY
Liberty could challenge its highest ranking in the AP Top 25, 17th in the 2020 season.
UNTIL NEXT TIME
New Mexico State is bowl eligible for the second consecutive season, the first time this has happened since 1960.
Liberty will make a bowl appearance for the fifth consecutive year since becoming a full member of the FBS in 2019. The Flames are 3-1 in bowl games.
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AP College Football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football