Many CUSA challengers have taken their best shots at the Liberty Flames during this late September and October slate of weeknight action. But just like the past few weeks, another team tried and failed to stain the unblemished mark of Jamey Chadwell’s team.
Liberty (7-0, 5-0 CUSA) remains one of 11 unbeaten teams in the country after outlasting Middle Tennessee (2-6, 1-3 CUSA), 42-35, in a back-and-forth shootout. Two key strengths have defined the Flames’ 7-0 start, and both facets were on full display Wednesday night in Lynchburg.
One was the run game. Liberty entered Wednesday night’s contest ranked second in the FBS in rushing yards per game at 253.5. But the Flames hadn’t even seen a performance on the ground like the one that transpired against Middle Tennessee. The pseudo-option based offense attained a season-high 401 rushing yards, headlined by the dynamic duo of quarterback Kaidon Salter and running back Quinton Cooley. Salter reset his career-high in rushing with 160 yards on 16 carries — refraining from taking a single sack and oftentimes escaping pressure on designed passing plays. Cooley operated as the workhorse back on the ground, totaling 134 yards for his fourth consecutive 100-yard showing. He was instrumental in the scoring effort with three rushing touchdowns, including two in the first quarter and one in the late third quarter to knot the game at 35 apiece.
The other recurring strength of Liberty that factored into the result was the turnover battle. No FBS team intercepted more passes this year than Liberty (13) heading into Week 7, and the Flames sustained their turnover-inducing ways in the second half, which proved crucial in the victory. The tide officially turned in a 35-35 ballgame when a promising Middle Tennessee drive abruptly concluded as safety Brylan Green forced a fumble on wide receiver Holden Willis. Liberty cornerback Kobe Singleton scooped up the loose ball at the Flames’ 42-yard line, providing ammunition for the go-ahead touchdown in the first minute of the fourth quarter — a 37-yard connection from Salter to deep threat CJ Daniels with 14:37 remaining.
For the last 14 minutes and change, the shootout suddenly evolved into a defensive struggle. Liberty failed to move the sticks as Middle Tennessee’s defense honed in on the run game to force three consecutive punts. The Blue Raiders, however, moved the ball downfield and won the field position battle during the quarter. They received a golden opportunity to tie the game at 42 when a 13-yard punt by Liberty provided them field position at the Flames’ 23. But that’s when Liberty’s interception tendencies struck. Quarterback Nick Vattiato targeted D.J. England-Chisholm in the end zone on a play that mirrored the Blue Raiders’ touchdown in the early third quarter. Except this time, Liberty safety Preston Hodge sniffed out the route and snatched the underthrown ball from England-Chisholm’s grasp.
Middle Tennessee’s defense granted itself one more opportunity at tie, but once again, the Flames registered a key takeaway. On an all-important 4th and 10, Vattiato targeted Elijah Metcalf slightly short of the first down marker. The ball deflected into the air and was snagged by a diving Green, who forced his second turnover of the night and registered his fifth interception of the season. After sealing the Blue Raiders’ fate in Lynchburg, Green is now the standalone leader in picks this season — recording exactly one interception in five of his six games. And Liberty remains the FBS’s interceptions leader with 18 during this tremendous start.
Liberty wound up winning the turnover battle, 3-2, thanks to notching three takeaways in the second half. But though the first two-and-a-half quarters, that department heavily favored the Blue Raiders. Middle Tennessee gained an early advantage when intercepting Salter on the first snap of the evening — only Salter’s third interception of the year. Several plays later, Vattiato fired a touchdown strike to backup quarterback DJ Riles for an early 7-0 lead. Middle Tennessee also capitalized on a third quarter fumble by Cooley, which allowed Rick Stockstill’s team to strike first in the second half and claim a 35-28 lead. At that point, Middle Tennessee’s offense was rolling and supported by a 2-0 lead in the turnover battle.
The Blue Raiders consistently created explosive plays throughout the first three quarters of the contest as Vattiato amassed 332 passing yards with four different receivers surpassing 60 yards. Vattiato completed six attempts spanning at least 20 yards including 36-yard and 72-yard touchdown passes in the third quarter. But two weeks ago, the Blue Raiders squandered a 23-7 halftime lead at Jacksonville State due to four second half turnovers, and the inability to hold onto the ball offset the offensive success yet again.
Middle Tennessee already surpassed last year’s total in the loss column with its sixth defeat of 2023. The Blue Raiders qualified for bowl eligibility in nine of the 11 prior seasons, but they are now pushed to the brink with four games remaining on the regular season schedule. After eight consecutive weeks of action, Middle Tennessee takes a brief respite before returning to the gridiron on Saturday, Nov. 4 for a road trip to New Mexico State.
With another win in the books and a maximum of 10 undefeated teams come Sunday, Liberty likely gains more traction in the AP Poll going forward. The Flames currently have five votes to their name, and they’ll look to preserve their unblemished record in a road trip against preseason CUSA favorite WKU next Tuesday in Bowling Green, KY.