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Liberty remains undefeated and hands Jacksonville State first CUSA loss, 31-13

The Flames climbed high into the night, to beat Jax State in a Tuesday fight.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 19 Virginia Tech at Liberty Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Entering Tuesday, 14 FBS teams sported undefeated records.

And exiting Tuesday, 14 FBS teams still sport undefeated records.

Liberty was living life on the edge last week, requiring a goal line stand to stave off winless Sam Houston in Lynchburg. But that scare was not a sign of things to come for the Flames, which stormed into a road environment and comfortably put Jacksonville State away in the second half, 31-13. The Flames are the sixth team to clinch bowl eligibility this season, joining Georgia, Louisville, Michigan, Oklahoma, and USC.

Jamey Chadwell’s team ranked second in the country in rushing yards per game prior to Tuesday, and that facet of the offense carried the team in the three-score victory. The Flames attained 245 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the night, highlighted by a 163-yard explosion by running back Quinton Cooley. It was a career-high performance by the Wake Forest transfer who registered his third consecutive 100-yard game and fourth of the 2023 season.

The Flames’ passing game started slow as quarterback Kaidon Salter completed just one of his first eight attempts. But an 11-of-13 finish by the sophomore helped ignite Liberty’s offense in the second half. In the middle of the third quarter, Salter broke a 10-10 tie in the third quarter with a 27-yard delivery to Treon Sibley in the end zone. Then on the first play of the fourth quarter, Salter ensured the margin expanded to double digits, finding Aaron Bedgood in the end zone for a 29-yard connection.

Jacksonville State was held out of end zone entirely in the second half. The Gamecocks scored on their second possession of the evening to establish an early 7-0 advantage, but they struggled to finish drives for the remainder of the contest. The three drives following the touchdown all penetrated inside the Liberty 35-yard line, but the Gamecocks tossed an interception and missed a field goal on those valuable opportunities.

Quarterback play was a roller coaster for Rich Rodriguez’s squad Tuesday night. Jacksonville State is accustomed to alternating between Zion Webb and Logan Smothers before eventually settling on the hot hand. This week, Webb earned the start but was removed from the game with an injury on a QB keeper in the first quarter. Smothers checked in and finished 8-of-18 for 115 yards and an interception before redshirt freshman Ashton Frye was inserted onto the field in the middle of the third quarter to provide an offensive spark. Frye completed 5-of-11 passes for 51 yards and produced the most rushing yards of the three mobile quarterbacks with 23 — a testament to how well Liberty’s 22nd ranked defense contained that important feature of the Gamecocks’ offense.

Jacksonville State typically prefers to keep things grounded but playing from behind caused the Gamecocks to resort to the aerial attack. The result was an erratic 14-of-31 showing, and Liberty’s secondary — which forces the sixth-lowest completion percentage in the FBS — delivered with seven pass deflections. Star cornerback Kobe Singleton recorded one of two interceptions for the Flames, which jumped Oklahoma to lead the 2023 season in the category with 13.

Jacksonville State (5-2, 3-1 CUSA) dropped its first conference game of the year after an inspiring start. The Gamecocks saw their three-game win streak snap and lost their first home game since jumping to the FBS this season. However, this loss does not hurt Jacksonville State’s chances of appearing in the CUSA Championship Game since the team was ineligible due to FBS transitioning rules.

Liberty (6-0, 4-0 CUSA) remains spotless after its fifth double-digit victory this season. The Flames are the only undefeated team with zero votes in the AP Poll and they’ll look to make their case stronger next Tuesday when hosting Rick Stockstill and Middle Tennessee. At 6-0, Liberty is two wins away from tying its best start (8-0 in 2020) since joining the FBS five years ago.