The New Year’s Six is wrapped up, and all that remains in the 2023 college football season — and the New Year’s Six era as we know it — is the National Championship between Michigan and Washington.
Before Michigan and Washington earned their hard-fought victories last Monday, the first New Year’s Six bowl of the 2024 calendar year kicked off in Glendale, AZ. It featured a never-before-seen matchup between the Oregon Ducks and Liberty Flames, where Oregon edged the Conference USA champion by a decisive score of 45-6.
Here are several postgame storylines and takeaways from a fateful day in Arizona — a massive win for Oregon and the most significant game in Liberty history:
A test unlike any other
Liberty knew heading into the Fiesta Bowl that Oregon would be a step-up in competition from what it faced in Conference USA all season. While the Flames started the day strong with a 6-3 lead after the first quarter, the Ducks rapidly awoke from their early slumber and piled on the points. Oregon scored 45 unanswered to finish the game, including 28 in the second quarter, sending a previously-unbeaten Liberty squad with a near 40-point loss.
“They have a fine team, and they obviously laid it on us today,” Liberty head coach Jamey Chadwell said at his postgame press conference. “We knew we would have to play really well to compete and have a chance to win the game, and they did a lot of things that made it challenging on us. So hats off to them.”
Part of the challenge for the Flames was the quarterback on the other sideline, Bo Nix, who was participating in his final collegiate game. The 2023 Heisman finalist set multiple records in the Fiesta Bowl — setting the 2023 record in touchdown passes with 45, extending his own record for most starts by an FBS quarterback with 61, and breaking Mac Jones’ all-time single-season completion percentage record by finishing at 77.4 percent. Nix concluded his final year at Oregon with a breathtaking touchdown-to-interception ratio of 45-to-3, demonstrating how rare it is for the fifth-year senior to make a back-breaking mistake. So there was minimal room for Liberty to capitalize on such errors.
“He doesn’t make many mistakes — he’s a good quarterback,” Liberty strong safety Quinton Reese said. “That one mistake he makes, we have to capitalize on. The one that he made the whole game, we didn’t capitalize on and that’s the difference between a win and a loss.”
The Ducks didn’t just exhibit a potent offense, however. Oregon produced a shutout for the final 57 minutes and 37 seconds of action, only letting up one Liberty touchdown on the opening drive. The Flames pierced into Duck territory on several occasions, but Oregon produced timely turnovers and first down stops to keep Liberty at six points for roughly the entire contest.
“They’re the best defense we played,” Chadwell said. “You have to really scheme them up to make some things happen. When you get behind the chains, get behind the sticks, you’re not able to maybe do things that you would like to do to keep the clock running and get the yardage that you need.”
When one team features 5-star players and another team is bereft of the presence of 5-stars, physicality in the trenches can often be cited as the striking difference separating the teams. However, the Flames didn’t feel like Oregon’s physicality was an overwhelming aspect in their greatest test to date, but rather, self-inflicted mistakes continued to snowball until the game’s final whistle.”
“It wasn’t that physical of a game, honestly, speaking from the heart,” Liberty running back Quinton Cooley said. “I felt like we were just as physical as them up front and everywhere really. I played in the ACC so it didn’t matter to me. I played type of teams like that. The physicality was there, it really wasn’t a physical game, it was just Liberty beating Liberty — a bunch of flags in the second quarter and that really killed us — 28 points straight. It’s a team thing.”
Flaming out in run game
The No. 1 rushing attack in college football is typically reserved for a triple option based team, or more specifically, a service academy. Liberty bucked that trend in 2023, besting the likes of Air Force and Army to field the nation’s best ground game with 293 yards per game.
While Liberty doesn’t run the traditional service academy triple option, Chadwell implements quirks from that style into his signature scheme. The Flames run more of a spread triple option attack out of shotgun, and their unique style was far too much for their first 13 opponents to handle.
Prior to the Fiesta Bowl, Liberty’s rushing average exceeded 300 yards per game. But Oregon’s elite run defense presented challenges the Flames hadn’t witnessed all season. As a result, Liberty mustered up a season-low 168 rushing yards on the Oregon defense, unable to generate consistent success against the Pac-12 power.
“The challenge was they’re big in the box and sometimes we can hand it off and get some big yards. We weren’t able to do that,” Chadwell said. “Secondly, when you get behind, you get away from it, right? So you’re not really able to grind on people and some of those things. So there’s a combination of that.”
This was nothing new for Oregon, which finished No. 11 in FBS run defense, holding opponents to roughly 103 yards per game. Having a month to prepare for Chadwell’s unique option scheme paid its dividends, and Oregon’s front seven — which consists of many NFL bound players — stepped up to the occasion to stifle the Liberty offense.
“I think it just went down to the preparation,” Oregon middle linebacker Jeffrey Bassa said. “Knowing that they were the number one rushing offense in the country, I think a lot of the guys looked up to the challenge of stopping that run. That’s something that we didn’t do in the previous game. We didn’t do that very well.
For Oregon, many of its star NFL-bound defenders, including defensive tackle Taki Taimani and defensive end Brandon Dorlus, were participating in their final games donning green and yellow. That pent-up anticipation for the Fiesta Bowl combined with their degree of execution produced a defensive performance for the ages. Liberty was held scoreless after its opening drive and managed just six points after eclipsing 40 in six of its prior seven contests.
“Accepting that challenge, I know a lot of the defensive linemen were fired up,” Bassa said. “Guys like Taki and Dorlus were fired up to go against that offensive line. Then obviously Coach (Dan) Lanning and Coach (Tosh) Lupoi calling the calls that they wanted to call. A simple call sheet. We were ready to strike and fit the gaps.”
Bassa stated Oregon dominated defensively with simple play calls, and Chadwell essentially backed up that claim. Nothing that transpired at State Farm Stadium was foreign to Liberty, but the physicality and gap integrity displayed by the Ducks cut off the Flames’ high-powered run game, forcing them to play from behind nearly the entire afternoon.
“It wasn’t the scheme they were doing,” Chadwell said. “Our guys will tell you, we knew where they were at. There wasn’t anything they didn’t show us that we weren’t prepared for. But you have to be able to buckle in, and we weren’t able to do that consistently.”
Belonging on the stage
It wasn’t the day Liberty envisioned by any stretch of imagination. The Flames were ready to shock the world as three-score underdogs to Oregon,
But before Liberty secured the bid, there was debate whether the Flames belonged in a New Year’s Six setting, when compared to other conference champions eligible for the bid such as SMU or Troy. The undefeated record was never the question with Liberty, but rather, its bottom three strength of schedule ranking heading into the game. Liberty’s strongest victories were a pair of wins over 10-5 New Mexico State — the CUSA runner-up which notably notched a 31-10 road win over Auburn.
Yet even after a 39-point evisceration, the general consensus from Oregon was that the Flames definitely earned their ticket to play in one of college football’s six most prestigious bowls.
“They one hundred percent deserved to be on this stage,” Oregon free safety Steve Stephens IV said. “They had a 13-win season. They were undefeated coming in. That’s extremely hard to do, especially at the college level. They deserved to be here and I was excited to play against them.”
Oregon head coach Dan Lanning shared a similar sentiment with his players. The Flames were prepared for the New Year’s Six setting — and even held a lead after the first quarter — but the Ducks fired back with stellar execution in the final three quarters to produce the lopsided result. Similarly to Chadwell, Lanning hopes what Oregon did in Arizona does not define the Flames’ highly-successful 13-win campaign in 2023.
“They were an undefeated team,” Lanning said. “They had an elite season. Coach Chadwell has won everywhere he’s been. Yeah, we had the better game today. We played well today. They’re a good team. You can’t discredit a team going unscathed throughout the season, undefeated. It speaks to the quality of the team they are and the quality of coaches they had. They had an elite season. Hopefully this doesn’t overshadow the season they had.”
Liberty was unquestionably best team in the CUSA this year. Not only did the Flames post an undefeated record prior to bowl season, but they pulverized the competition. Of the team’s 13 wins in 2023, 11 were decided by double-digits — and they never trailed once in a fourth quarter until the Oregon game. With that level of dominance exuded in year one of the Chadwell era, the head coach believes this year’s team set the stage for another tremendous season in 2024.
“This program will be back on this stage,” Chadwell said. “Mark that down. Conference USA will be back on this stage. We will be back in this. The reason why is because today, we saw how far we’re away. The guys that are returning and the guys we’re bringing in, this will be our benchmark.”
Next year if Liberty were to enjoy a similar run of success, the reward wouldn’t be an ordinary New Year’s Six bowl, but rather, an opportunity to compete for a national championship. As the College Football Playoff format shifts from four teams to 12 teams, the Flames’ access to the exclusive event significantly opens up. While a CFP appearance was a near-impossibility before the 2023 season kicked off, Chadwell believes it’s an attainable goal with the expanded field in 2024. And that’s what the Flames will aim for.
“We’re shooting for the College Football Playoff and today is a great motivator, because it tells us how far we are,” Chadwell said. “And we’re far away right now. But we will be back on that, and I hope future recruits and people know that we’re heading in a great direction.”