LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Kaidon Salter threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, and undefeated No. 20 Liberty maintained its hopes of a New Year's Six bowl bid, beating New Mexico State 49-35 in the Conference USA championship game on Friday night.
Salter was 20 of 25 passing for 319 yards and rushed 12 times for 165 yards in a dominant performance for the Flames (13-0), who could end up playing on New Year's Day as the highest-ranked Group of Five team if No. 17 Tulane falls to SMU in Saturday's American Athletic Conference title game.
“If you've watched us for 13 weeks, we're the best G5 team in this country,” Liberty coach Jamey Chadwell said to cheers from a crowd that had stormed the field. “Six wins over bowl teams. Our average margin of victory is 17 points. We have dominated our opponents. We belong in that New Year's Six.”
With the game tied at 35-all, 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 the game's MVP.
“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.”
Diego Pavia, who did not practice during the week because of a shoulder injury, threw three touchdown passes and ran for a score for the Aggies (10-4), whose eight-game winning streak ended. Pavia left the game during the third quarter and did not return.
“He’s the toughest kid I’ve ever been around, and you can quote me on that,” Aggies coach Jerry Kill said.
In came Berlowitz, who had not thrown a pass all season. His 11-yard TD pass to Trent Hudson tied the game with 2:57 left in the third quarter.
The Flames, with the country's No. 1 rushing offense, ran 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 rushes. Liberty finished with 712 yards of offense, had 35 first downs and didn't turn the ball over while beating New Mexico State for the second time this season.
“That’s the second time we’ve played (Salter) and he just doesn’t make mistakes,” Kill said.
Despite getting few defensive stops, New Mexico State kept it close until the final quarter. After Salter's 20-yard touchdown pass to CJ Daniels put Liberty ahead 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, and Berlowitz took advantage, hitting Hudson for the tying score.
“We obviously took their best shot,” Chadwell said, “but there was never a doubt on our sideline that we weren’t going to find a way to get it done.”
Hudson had seven catches for 112 yards and two TDs. Pavia was 11 of 18 passing for 188 yards and had 45 yards rushing. Berlowitz was 10 of 19 for 134 yards.
New Mexico State: The Aggies' winning streak included a victory over Auburn, their first against a Southeastern Conference opponent in 28 tries.
Liberty: The Flames became the first team from Virginia 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 from 2007 through 2016 as a Big South Conference member.
“To be 13-0, to be Conference USA champions, we thought that was out there,” Chadwell said. “We thought we could achieve that if things went our way, and boy, did it go our way all season long.”
Liberty could challenge its highest ranking in the AP Top 25, No. 17 in the 2020 season.
New Mexico State is bowl eligible for the second straight season, the first time that’s happened since 1960.
Liberty will make a bowl appearance for the fifth straight year since becoming a full FBS member in 2019. The Flames are 3-1 in bowl games.
Get alerts on the latest AP Top 25 poll throughout the season. Sign up here.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football