Once the New Year’s Day fireworks disintegrated into dust and the first daylight of 2024 illuminated the sky, it was time to launch the year with the grand stage of the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, AZ.
The prestigious New Year’s Six bowl presented an unlikely, unorthodox matchup that hardly anybody projected in August. For the first time ever, a Conference USA champion crashed the stage and it rolled into Arizona with an unblemished 13-0 record, fresh off its conference championship.
That Cinderella team, the Liberty Flames were in their first year operating in a conference after five years of independent status, with eyes locked on history. But what awaited on the other sideline was ready to impede that history and apply the very first stain to Liberty’s spotless record.
After falling one possession short of the final 4-team College Football Playoff, the Oregon Ducks took a business trip to the desert to claim their first New Year’s Six bowl victory since 2019. And that business was taken care in the most efficient manner possible. The Ducks throttled Liberty, 45-6, in the Fiesta Bowl, tying the program’s most lopsided bowl victory of all-time in a one-sided affair.
“We said this season, and really this game, was about unfinished business,” Oregon head coach Dan Lanning said. “We said we’re writing the last chapter to our book, and we had the pen. I thought our guys wrote a phenomenal chapter. Started off a little hairy, but they finished it off the way Oregon is supposed to play.”
State Farm Stadium was the setting to house the final curtain call for Bo Nix. Oregon’s Heisman finalist quarterback enjoyed an accomplished college career, extending his own FBS record by making his 61st start Monday. But Nix did more than just arrive to the stadium for his final chapter of a remarkable story. The quarterback flat-out dominated.
Nix completed 28-of-35 passes for 363 yards and a Fiesta Bowl-best five touchdowns, equipped with a metaphorical pen utilized to rewrite several other records on Monday. His five touchdown strikes elevated him to No. 1 on the FBS passing touchdowns list this season, concluding with a national best of 45. Additionally, he broke Mac Jones’ single-season completion percentage record of 77.36 percent, finishing the 2023 campaign 364-of-470, which calculates to 77.45 percent.
“I think the completion percentage is important because it speaks to a lot of people. It doesn’t just speak to one person,” Nix said. “Everybody that the ball is thrown to, they’ve got to catch it, they’ve got to do something to it, and then you’ve got to protect it to throw it. Everybody was included. I think it’s a great team accomplishment. I think it was an awesome way for this year to conclude, and it’s an honor to even be recognized as that, because the quarterback setup had those records. I’m just extremely fortunate, extremely blessed, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”
Nix exited the contest in the middle of the fourth quarter to a standing ovation from the green and yellow portions of the crowd, as he rode off into the sunset with Offensive MVP honors.
“Well, for it being my last game and for the season that we had, I grew up watching the Fiesta Bowl,” Nix said. “I grew up watching bowl games on New Year’s Day and dreaming and going outside after and playing like I was in that position. It wasn’t until pregame, I was out there warming up and I thought back to 2010 when the national championship was here and I was able to come to it. Full-circle moment. I’m back in my fifth-year and the last game ever, back in the stadium. It’s little things like that, that you know God orchestrates, and He does things like that, and He’s up there kind of smiling.”
Before the Bo Nix show went into full swing, Liberty received the opening kickoff and trotted out its high-powered offense which ranked third in yardage and fifth in points per game prior to the Fiesta Bowl. Although the Flames’ offense hadn’t rivaled defense of Oregon’s caliber all year, Liberty looked just like its usual self on the opening drive. Running back Aaron Bedgood set the tone with a 33-yard run and quarterback Kaidon Salter delivered a 17-yard dime to tight end Bentley Hanshaw in the end zone for an instant 6-0 advantage.
“I think we actually had a good plan,” Liberty head coach Jamey Chadwell said. “The first drive, obviously, worked well. We had some things there. We had some other ones there, especially in the first half... So I thought we had a good plan early on. But then when they got up so much, now you’re just trying to make sure you can stay in it. You might have to come away from it a little bit and put us in some situations that we didn’t want to be in.”
Liberty never scored again for the final 57 minutes and 37 seconds of action. The Flames held a slight 6-3 advantage heading into the second quarter, but the ensuing 15 minutes completely altered the complexion of the game. Oregon eviscerated Liberty 28-0 in the frame, backed by four touchdown passes from Nix and a relentless showing by the defense.
“I always tell my guys — ‘Let’s get three-and-out so we can watch Bo Nix go out there and do what he does,’” free safety Steve Stephens IV said. “He’s a magician and we love to watch him play, so get a three-and-out and we can go sit on the bench and watch him play. It was amazing.”
The Ducks registered 280 yards in the second quarter alone, breaking off for explosive play after explosive play. The final touchdown delivery — a 17-yard connection from Nix to Traeshon Holden transpired with three seconds left in the half.
“We get that little quarter to mess around. Once everybody gets to clicking, we’re unstoppable,” Holden said. “The whole thing for us was to let everybody know we’re still one of the best in the country. Today, we just put our foot on their necks and didn’t let up.”
Holden’s was set up by a rare Liberty interception where Stephens made a diving grab off a deflection — snagging the pigskin at the last instant before it contacted the ground. Stephens’ highlight play was only the Flames’ sixth interception thrown all season, and the Flames lost the turnover battle 2-0.
“It was a crucial moment going into the half,” Stephens said. “I scooped it up and I kind of felt like I grabbed it one-hand, but I knew I caught it. It was funny watching it on slow-mo hoping they’d give it to me. But it was great and I talked about it with my parents before — ‘I’m gonna get a pick this game’ and I got it.”
The Ducks kept their webbed-feet on the gas pedal through the third quarter. On the first drive after halftime, Lanning pulled out the trickery for a fifth-straight touchdown drive. Oregon ran a flea-flicker and when Nix retrieved the ball after several exchanges in the backfield, he sent a screen to his brother Tez Johnson. With an army of blockers in front of Johnson, the star receiver went along for the 24-yard ride and leaped into the end zone for his only score in an 11-reception, 172-yard day.
“We had that in our back pocket,” Johnson said of the play. “We were just waiting for coach to call it. When we called it, I knew I was gonna score the whole time, running behind Big Steve (right guard Steven Jones). That’s the biggest guy on the field at all times, so it looked pretty good.”
The Ducks were labeled as prohibitive favorites over the undefeated Flames, with betting lines ranging from 16 to 21 points since the announcement of the matchup. Oregon was unquestionably the strongest team Liberty faced in its first season of CUSA membership, and Pac-12 power dismantled a team that won 12 of its first 13 games by double-digits.
“Coming from Conference USA, we’re a small conference. We don’t play big teams like Oregon, but it was really great,” Liberty running back Quinton Cooley said of the experience. “I got to spend time with my brothers. Unfortunately it didn’t come out like we wanted it to. Oregon’s a great team. Bo Nix is a great quarterback. (Tez Johnson) is a great wide receiver. Bucky (Irving) is a great running back. There’s a lot of them. They have a lot of great weapons and we didn’t execute.”
Only five teams accomplished the arduous task of pulling off a perfect season during the first nine years of the College Football Playoff era, and Liberty (13-1, 8-0 CUSA) was unable to join that exclusive club. Despite falling short in Glendale, the Flames wrap up their sensational season with a program-record 13 victories, complemented by the CUSA’s first New Year’s Six appearance in history. The Flames held their heads high despite the result, proud of what they accomplished during a meteoric rise to the national stage.
“It’s good for our university in general just to be able to be in this position,” strong safety Quinton Cooley said. “No matter how the outcome went, it’s great just to put Liberty on the map. People don't know Liberty, but today they might know a little more about them.”
Despite the lopsided outcome, several Oregon players were adamant the Flames deserved the right to battle on the New Year’s Six stage.
“They did what they had to do,” Holden said. “They’re undefeated so that’s a big shoutout to those boys because there ain’t too many teams that are undefeated. They definitely did their job by getting here, but at the end of the day, no matter who was on the field, we were gonna do that regardless.”
But Monday in Arizona was a celebration of the Oregon Ducks. Playing their final game with Pac-12 logos on their uniforms before moving to the Big Ten, Oregon wrapped up the era with its first New Year’s Six victory in four years and its first under Lanning. The Ducks likely warrant a top six spot in the final rankings, securing their seventh AP Top 10 finish in 14 years.
“It’s a beautiful feeling,” Stephens said. “I really can’t put it into words right now. To finish my senior year on a victory at a very prestigious bowl game, that’s just nothing but the Lord honestly. It’s a blessing. It’s amazing because you’re leaving a legacy for all the guys behind you to look up to. Twelve-win season has only been done a few times here and I’ve been a part of two teams that have done that. It’s a beautiful feeling.”