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2023 Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Preview: Liberty Flames vs. Oregon Ducks

Liberty looks to solidify a perfect season as heavy underdogs to Bo Nix and a well-balanced Oregon squad.

2017 College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl Set Number: SI668 TK1

Game notes

  • Time and date: Monday, January 1 at 1:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: State Farm Stadium — Glendale, AZ
  • Spread: Oregon (-16.5)
  • Over/under: 67.5
  • All-time series: No previous matchups
  • Liberty last bowl: 2022 Boca Raton Bowl, 21-19 loss to Toledo
  • Oregon last bowl: 2022 Holiday Bowl, 28-27 win over North Carolina
  • 2022 Fiesta Bowl matchup: TCU 51, Michigan 45

Setting the scene

2023 marks the final year of the New Year’s Six that controlled the college football landscape over the past decade.

Three New Year’s Six bowls are already in the books and three have yet to see their stories written. The only non-playoff NY6 left on the docket is the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl which pits two previously unfamiliar opponents together. The Oregon Ducks (11-2, 8-1 Pac-12) and Liberty Flames (13-0, 8-0 CUSA) square off for the first time in history.

Oregon chases its first New Year’s Six victory since 2019 and second in the College Football Playoff era, aiming to secure a top 10 finish for the seventh time in the last 14 seasons. The Ducks fell one victory short of their second playoff appearance this season, and that Pac-12 Championship Game loss to Washington weighs heavy on their minds as they prepare to finish strong in Arizona.

“That doesn’t leave your system, something you think about consistently,” Oregon head coach Dan Lanning said. “It can be part of your fuel for future and what you want to be able to accomplish down the road. But I think you will always remember the things that didn’t go your way.”

For Liberty, these accolades aren’t familiar. The Flames joined the FBS in 2018 and didn’t even hold conference membership until this year. In their inaugural season as a Conference USA member, they dominated the conference and became the first CUSA team to earn a New Year’s Six bid. Now, Liberty chases perfection, which has only been accomplished by five teams in the CFP era — 2017 UCF, 2018 Clemson, 2019 LSU, 2020 Alabama, and 2022 Georgia.

“You know, for the last few years, our university was fighting to get into a conference, and Conference USA believed in us and believed in what we were about and to be able to represent them in the first-ever New Year’s Six for them is something special,” Liberty head coach Jamey Chadwell said. “It’s something we don’t take lightly. It’s hard to get here and you have to have a tremendous season. You have to have things go your way and you have to have other things, other people not go their way, to have a special season like we had.”


Liberty Flames offensive outlook

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 24 Liberty at WKU
Liberty QB Kaidon Salter rushed for over 1,000 yards and threw over 30 touchdowns this season, guiding the Flames to a top 3 total offense.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When sorting the entire FBS by rushing offense, the national leader is typically a triple option-based offense — and more specifically, a service academy. The last team that didn’t run a triple option to rank supreme in this category was 2013 Auburn.

In 2023, the national leader is Liberty, which runs a pseudo triple option offense under first-year head coach Jamey Chadwell — a scheme he had plenty of success with at his prior stomping grounds of Coastal Carolina. By working his magic at Liberty, he has the Flames’ offense posting 303 rushing yards per game, besting Air Force (No. 2 in the category) by a difference exceeding 21 yards. And while the scheme may be confusing to describe, it simply works when it’s in action against opposing defenses.

“I think people really call it like a spread triple option,” running back Quinton Cooley said of the offensive scheme. “I went Wing-T in high school. It’s nowhere near that type of thing, but certain things like power, trap, certain things, it’s the same. But the Wing-T is totally different from this. I think the coaches and other people just call it the spread option because you have a bunch of motions and this stuff, and you have a running back that can go in option with them. But the same thing can be a throw. I can’t explain it to you. I know it’s confusing. I just run the plays. I don’t know the name it’s called. So I say spread triple option, to be honest.”

Cooley is one of the leaders of the movement with 1,322 yards and 16 touchdowns as a rusher this season, checking in at 13th and 6th in the FBS, respectively. But what makes Liberty’s option offense unique is the sheer dominance by the quarterback in the run game. Kaidon Salter is currently third among quarterbacks in rushing yards with 1,064 on the year and can reasonably vault into No. 1 with a typical performance. Making smart reads has allowed Salter to thrive as the offense’s distributor all year long, and he’ll look to replicate his 165-yard outburst from the CUSA Championship Game at the Fiesta Bowl.

“Just being able to hand the ball off at times and trusting the o-line to get those four or five yards on those runs, and trusting that we can move the ball over there and break a few tackles,” Salter said on the run game’s success. “You see the numbers that we put up on the run game. I feel like everybody knows about the running game and it’s something that people have a problem stopping.”

Liberty ranks third in the FBS in total offense, and the Flames excel in areas outside of their complex option-based run scheme. They are second in pass protection — coincidentally, only trailing Oregon in sacks allowed per game. And Salter takes advantage of this sturdy offensive line, thriving as a passer with an incredible touchdown-to-interception ratio of 31-to-5. Although the Flames prefer to keep things grounded, when the quarterback drops back to pass, it’s usually well past the sticks. Salter averages 17.0 yards per completion, and three of his top four receivers pick up more than 20 yards per catch — including his top wideout CJ Daniels.

“As a unit, it starts with Salter,” Cooley said. “If you have a great quarterback, you’re going to have a great program, honestly. And him being that top dual-threat quarterback, you have someone who can throw and run, have the leadership, tell you what to do, but being able to run on his legs... We’re not just we can run. We can also throw. The unit is a real nasty unit, and the offense we have is really dangerous, and the athletes is really great on the offense.”


Oregon Ducks offensive outlook

2023 Pac-12 Championship - Oregon v Washington
Oregon QB Bo Nix ranks second in the FBS in passing yards and is tied for first in passing touchdowns, leading to a top 3 Heisman finish.
Photo by Ric Tapia/Getty Images

Second in yardage, second in points, second in passing yards. Oregon’s offense is among the nation’s elite in many categories, and it’s conducted by a first-year offensive coordinator in Will Stein.

The Ducks register over 44 points per game, posting 30 or more on the scoreboard in all 13 data points in 2023. Not only did they move the ball downfield with ease, but Oregon also played exceptionally smart football. They only turned it over seven times in those 13 contests, which is currently tied for third among FBS teams.

“Well, when you look at us, I think we’re extremely balanced,” Oregon quarterback Bo Nix said. “We run the ball as well as anybody in the country. We throw the ball as well as anybody in the country and we do a good job on third downs. We stay on the field, we score in the red zone. I think just overall when you look at us, we’re kind of a complete offense. I don’t know if we necessarily lack in any area. But with that being said, we have to make sure that we finish drives and we do what we’re supposed to do. We always say that we’re the only team that can stop ourselves.”

Many of these commendable statistics can be traced to the weekly heroics of quarterback Nix, who tremendously evolved as a passer and player when transferring from Auburn to Eugene. Nix finished third in the Heisman Trophy race this year after collecting 4,145 passing yards with an insane 40 touchdowns to just three interceptions. The Fiesta Bowl marks the fifth-year starter’s final collegiate game, where he looks to bring home a New Year’s Six trophy to follow in the footsteps of previous Oregon stars like Justin Herbert and Marcus Mariota.

“Bo has been an accurate passer this season,” Lanning said. “It starts with decision-making, knowing where to take the ball. Even one of those interceptions hit our guy right in the chest. He has done a great job of protecting the ball. When you do that, you have an opportunity to win games. I think he’s sitting here on the verge of — he has an opportunity. I think it’s a tough opportunity, but he has an opportunity to finish as the NCAA’s leading passer as far as accuracy. So he’s done a good job of completing throws, and that’s where it starts with not turning the ball over.”

Nix benefits from the best offensive line in the FBS in terms of sacks surrendered per game. Oregon only yielded five sacks all year, which was four fewer than the next closest team in Liberty. That offensive line will be without Rimington Trophy Award winning center Jackson Powers-Johnson, but the unit still thrives as a whole. In addition to protecting Nix, they also pave the pathway for the run game to the tune of 5.9 yards per carry — only trailing LSU and Liberty for most successful rushing attack in college football. Oregon’s run game is headed by 1,000-yard back Bucky Irving, who displays excellent chemistry with the Ducks’ vaunted line.

“I think as every running back, he has a lot of appreciation for the o-line, but I think he makes an emphasis of that, too, by coming to meetings or maybe just offensive line meetings,” guard Steve Jones said. “He will come in and watch protections with us or even if we have, like, an offensive unit. He’s in tune with what’s going on with the O-line. It’s not so much block for me and run for me. He wants to make sure that we are on the same page.”


Liberty Flames defensive outlook

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Liberty at UAB
Liberty SS Quinton Reese is one crucial member of a defense which leads the FBS with 21 interceptions on the season.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Flames lead the country in a major statistical category on offense as the No. 1 rushing team. They also rank supreme in a major statistical category on the defensive side of things, housing more interceptions than any other team in the land. Liberty picked off 21 passes in 13 games this year, with defensive backs Brylan Green and Kobe Singleton leading the charge with five and four, respectively. Although Oregon rarely throws interceptions, the Liberty’s figurative claw machine doesn’t take too many weeks off from snatching footballs from opponents.

“I think we can get after them by competing and swarming to the ball and be hot-headed like we have been the last couple of weeks,” Liberty nose tackle Bryce Dixon said. “We have been preparing for this and we are ready for it.

The Flames don’t exhibit the strongest pass defense on paper, checking in at 101st in passing yards allowed per game, but teams target Liberty’s secondary at a high rate of 36 times per game — and that checks out because Liberty won all but one game by double-digits before, so opponents were playing from behind. But the Flames have ballhawks, and that extends beyond the interceptions. Three different Liberty defenders have at least eight pass breakups to their name this year, led by Singleton who totaled 12. Getting hands on Nix’s passes won’t be the easiest task, but it’s a challenge the undefeated Flames are up to.

“If you sit in zone, Bo’s going to slice you up,” Liberty defensive coordinator Skylor Magee said. “So you have to challenge them and play some man at times. You have to pick your spots and you have to send pressure. But the more zone you play, the more he’s going to be able to see it. Again, he doesn’t miss much. He just doesn’t. He’s very sharp, very smart. So you have to pick your spots and play a little bit of both on them.”

Even with all the pass breakups and interceptions, what the Flames do best on defense is stopping the run. Liberty limits foes below 112 yards per game with a top 20 national ranking in the category. However, Oregon presents a definite step-up in competition in the run game with athletes like Bucky Irving and Jordan James, who pick up 6.2 and 7.1 yards per carry, respectively. Still, Liberty doesn’t plan on changing its gameplan when facing its toughest competition of the season.

“We try to treat every game the same,” Liberty strong safety Quinton Reese said. “And our preparation-wise, how much more can I get better throughout however many weeks or days we have to prepare for the game. So nothing really changed. We don’t have to change the mac and cheese, as my coaches say. You don’t want to change the recipe at the last second. What we’ve been doing was really working, so there’s no need to change anything.”


Oregon Ducks defensive outlook

2023 Pac-12 Championship - Oregon v Washington
Oregon DE Brandon Dorlus will play his final game at the Fiesta Bowl, concluding a 5-year tenure in Eugene which featured three NY6 bowls.
Photo by Ric Tapia/Getty Images

Oregon came within one game of the College Football Playoff, and when a team is that close, there usually is tremendous balance all-around. Not only do the Ducks field an elite offense, but their defense is the class of the Pac-12.

Oregon gives up 17.3 points per game to check in at 11th in the country, and the unit makes a name for itself with the ability to stop the run — which bodes well against a high-powered run team like Liberty. The Ducks are 10th in this category, suffocating opposing run games to 97.5 yards per contest on a 3.4 average. And it’s as collective of an effort as possible with 16 different defenders posting 20 or more tackles on the year.

“I feel like this game is going to be one of those games where they will try to lure you to stopping the run the whole time and then take a big shot,” Oregon defensive end Brandon Dorlus said. “I know when it gets to the logo, that’s when they start passing the ball a little bit more. I can’t wait to be there.”

Dorlus is the heart and soul of the Oregon defense. The soon-to-be NFL Draft selection is playing in his final game, looking to cap a 5-year tenure in Eugene with a second New Year’s Six victory. The First Team All-Pac-12 selection recorded 5.0 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss on the season, and he’s not finished yet — looking to collect a Fiesta Bowl victory after being a member of the Ducks team that fell short in this bowl in 2020.

“He impacts it tremendously,” Oregon free safety Steve Stephens IV said of Dorlus on this defense. “We can put him at any spot on the d-line. He plays the whole d-line. So wherever he’s at, he’s wreaking havoc, and the offense is trying not to run to that side. Even on the pass, he’s killing guys in pass rush. So it’s big time. We need him.”

Liberty proved in the CUSA Championship Game it is capable of going offensive punch for punch with teams in a track meet. But in order for Oregon to emerge with that coveted 12th win, the Ducks will need their defense to be the defining unit. Defense is what brought Oregon from very good to great this year, as the team catapulted from 74th in scoring defense to 11th under second-year defensive coordinate Tosh Lupoi.”

“I think just our effort and also just our physicality,” Oregon middle linebacker Jeffrey Bassa said on the biggest improvement from last season. “I think a lot of the guys have been bought into what Coach Lanning does and Tosh Lupoi as well. It starts with preparation and it goes down to who is going to be the more physical team and who is going to run the fastest and hit the hardest. I think that’s something me as a leader has been trying to force onto these guys and instill into their mindset. This is something we have to do every day to be the greatest.”


Prediction

There will be points in Glendale. Oregon eclipses the 30-point threshold on a weekly basis. This game should follow that trend, as Bo Nix looks to solidify an outstanding college career, pitted against a team which participated in a high-scoring shootout in its last outing.

Liberty’s high-powered offense will produce several touchdowns, but the Flames haven’t faced a run defense rivaling that of the Ducks’ this year. In fact, this will be just their second test against a top 40 unit in that category (the other being Jacksonville State). Oregon’s athletic front seven led by Brandon Dorlus could make things difficult for the spread triple option attack, forcing Liberty to try other methods to spark the offense.

The Flames are accustomed to playing ahead, as they did for the majority of nearly all 13 games this year. But Monday might present a different game flow for the CUSA champions, and they must adapt to a well-balanced team that was a possession away from qualifying for the College Football Playoff.

Prediction: Oregon 44, Liberty 21