LYNCHBURGH, Virginia (KTSM) – New Mexico State (1-2, 0-1 CUSA) was handed a 33-17 defeat by Liberty (2-0, 1-0 CUSA) in both programs’ first Conference USA games for the 2023 season at Williams Stadium on Saturday.
New Mexico State committed three turnovers in the game, two of them came in the second half and proved to be costly ones.
After scoring 17 points in the first half and being down 23-17 at halftime, New Mexico State’s four drives in the second half ended with no points. First drive ended in a fumble by quarterback Diego Pavia. The second drive was a three-and-out which resulted in a punt. The third drive ended in a redzone interception and the fourth was a turnover on downs.
New Mexico State head coach Jerry Kill cited turnovers and Liberty’s ability to play more physical than his own squad was a big reason why Saturday panned out the way it did.
“From a physical standpoint, and I don’t like saying this, in the second half they [Liberty] just physically got after us,” Kill said. “We were matching their scores in the first half and then when you miss a couple of scoring opportunities with the three turnovers, you’re not going to beat them.”
This was New Mexico State’s second multi-turnover game so far this season, both have ended in defeats for the Aggies.
Liberty outgained New Mexico State 526-341 in total yards. Liberty quarterback Kaidon Salter went 15-of-25, 276 passing yards, and 4 total touchdowns (2 passing, 2 rushing).
This was New Mexico State’s lowest scoring game of the season. Quarterback Diego Pavia went 12-of-21 with 150 passing yards, a touchdown pass, a pair of interceptions and a fumble. Pavia also led the team in rushing with 65 yards on 9 attempts. Ahmonte Watkins was the leading running back with 45 yards on five carries. Wide receiver Trent Hudson collected the team’s only passing touchdown of the game. That was his second TD of the season.
Up next, New Mexico State will turn its focus to another edition of the Rio Grande Rivalry. New Mexico State will take on rival New Mexico at University Stadium in Albuquerque, New Mexico on Saturday, Sept. 16.
GAME RECAP (Courtesy: NM State Athletics)
LYNCHBURG, Va. – NM State’s first road trip of the season didn’t return the result it had hoped for as the Aggies (1-2, 0-1 CUSA) fell 33-17 at the hands of newly acquired Conference USA foe Liberty (2-0, 1-0 CUSA).
The Aggies and Flames traded blows in the opening half as the lead changed hands four times before Liberty ultimately took charge. In total, the Flames outgained the Aggies 526-341 while Liberty also dominated time of possession (37:54-22:06). Offensively, the Aggies were led by wide receiver Chris Bellamy who turned in the best game of his career – finishing with three catches for 74 yards.
Defensively, Jordan Vincent paced the Aggies in tackles with 10 to become the first Aggie to record double-digit tackles in a single game since October 1, 2022. After sitting out the first half, Dylan Early finished second in total tackles with eight in his limited snaps.
As was the case in the Aggies first loss of the season, turnovers were an issue for the Aggies. However, unlike UMass, Liberty was only able to score six points off turnovers. This did lead to Liberty compiling 77 offensive plays to the Aggies 50.
While the drive nearly ended in an Aggie fumble, the NM State offense ultimately picked up right where it left off last November as Diego Pavia constructed a six play, 75-yard touchdown drive that was capped off by Jamoni Jones rushing 10 yards untouched into the Liberty end zone.
NM State continued its strong start with its play on the defensive end as Liberty’s first drive was put to an end by Nikhil Webb Walker who punched the ball out of the hand of the Flames’ quarterback. Malachi McLean then retrieved the loose pigskin to give the Aggies the ball at their own 24-yard line.
Following a short Aggie possession, Liberty posted its first points of the night when Kaidon Salter found a streaking CJ Daniels for a 40-yard touchdown pass – evening the score at seven points apiece.
Early in the second period, the NM State offense was set up just outside of the red zone thanks to a pass interference call on a Eli Stowers pass that was intended for Bryce Childress. The Liberty defense dug its heels into the ground to force an Aggie field goal attempt from 35 yards out where Ethan Albertson connected for his third made field goal of the season.
The Aggies’ first third-down conversion of the evening gave the Aggies yet another scoring opportunity as Diego Pavia connected with Chris Bellamy for a 52-yard pass and catch to set NM State up at the Liberty 17-yard line. Three plays later, Pavia delivered on third down once again as he floated a ball into the front right corner of the end zone where Trent Hudson was waiting for his third touchdown catch of the season – putting the Aggies ahead 17-13 with 5:18 remaining in the half.
The Aggie lead was short-lived as the Flames drove down the field on the ensuing possession to take a three-point lead by way of a second Salter touchdown pass. The lead would remain at three following the extra point attempt as NM State’s front line pushed through to record a blocked kick.
NM State would receive the ball with two minutes and 13 seconds on the clock as they looked to tack on points before the half. Perhaps the desire to score points increased the willing to take risks as Pavia launched a pass intended for Jonathan Brady that was intercepted by the Liberty defender at the Flames 15 yard line. With 1:48 remaining, the Flames drove nearly the length of the field before the Aggie defense stiffened to allow the Flames to emerge from the drive with just three points and a six-point lead entering the break.
Liberty’s offense opened the third quarter with a lengthy 17-play, 75-yard drive that lasted more than nine minutes and ended in a Salter rushing touchdown to extend the difference to 13 points. This also marked the fifth consecutive drive that the Flames added points to the scoreboard.
Unlike the Flames, the Aggies’ first possession of the second half kept the Aggie defense off the field for just one minute and 25 seconds as Liberty recovered a fumble on NM State’s third play of the drive – allowing Liberty to take over at the Aggie 33. The NM State defense would come up with a big pass break up on third down in the end zone to force Liberty to settle for its second field goal of the night, thus leaving the game with a two-possession gap.
Following five straight Liberty drives which ended in points, the Flames’ punter stepped on the field for the first time of the evening in the fourth quarter as NM State’s defense returned the ball to the Aggie offense trailing by 16 points with 13:36 left on the clock.
The Aggies then put together an 11-play that spanned 54 yards, however, the final ball ended up in the hands of a Liberty defender on the final play of the drive as a tipped pass resulted in a Flames interception. The change in possession came following a review in which the play was overturned from an incomplete pass to an interception.
With 5:28, the Aggies got the ball back in need of two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions. However, NM State would finish the game scoreless in the second half.