NCAA FB

Liberty set for Fiesta Bowl vs. Oregon after emotional season sparked by tragedy

Dec 30, 2023, 4:54 PM | Updated: 5:23 pm

Liberty's CJ Daniels celebrates after a reception against New Mexico State during the second half o...

Liberty's CJ Daniels celebrates after a reception against New Mexico State during the second half of the Conference USA championship NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, in Lynchburg, Va. (AP Photo/Robert Simmons)

(AP Photo/Robert Simmons)

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. (AP) — Liberty’s quick rise has culminated with the best season in the program’s short history.

The Flames are undefeated, have a Conference USA trophy back home in Virginia and will play in a New Year’s Six bowl for the first time in Monday’s Fiesta Bowl against No. 8 Oregon.

They’ve done it through an unbreakable bond sparked by tragedy.

“It became a true true brotherhood and you can kind of watch it grow throughout the year, especially when we get into a tough moment in a game,” Liberty co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Newland Isaac said. “You can kind of see those guys come together alongside one another team. It’s probably is the reason why we’re 13-0.”

Liberty opened fall camp with the extra dose of enthusiasm a new coach brings to a program.

The Flames had a rapid rise under coach Hugh Freeze, earning four straight bowl appearances after joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2018. When Freeze parlayed his success in Lynchburg into the head coaching job at Auburn, in stepped Jamey Chadwell, who led Coastal Carolina to three straight bowl appearances.

The Flames’ world came crashing down around them the first Saturday of fall camp.

Tajh Boyd, a soft-spoken freshman offensive lineman, died on Aug. 7, later ruled by the medical examiner as a suicide. His death hit the Flames like an emotional shockwave.

“When things like that happen, you can either fall apart or you can make it a point to be around each other and be together, and try to stay together,” Liberty offensive lineman X’Zavea Gadlin said. “We really did that.”

The Flames had to take small steps at first.

The school provided grief counselors and the coaching staff met with team leaders to see where the players were mentally. The coaches had to sort through when to start practicing again, how hard to practice once they got rolling and keep a keen eye on players whose minds might be elsewhere to prevent injuries.

“It was tough, man, probably the toughest thing I’ve ever had to deal with,” Isaac said.

Liberty won an emotional opener over Bowling Green and kept winning. The Flames entered the AP Top 25 at No. 25 on Nov. 5 and climbed to No. 18 in the final regular-season poll. (They are No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings.)

The core of Liberty’s success has been an offensive line that rallied together following Boyd’s death.

The Flames led the nation in rushing yards per game at 302.9, finishing more than 20 yards per game ahead of the next-closest team. Liberty racked up 393 yards rushing and 712 yards overall in a 49-35 win over New Mexico State in the Conference USA title game.

“Tajh has been on our minds the whole way,” quarterback Kaidon Salter said. “It’s tough knowing that he’s not here with us, but we’re playing for him. That’s the whole goal of the year, playing for Tajh.”

Boyd has not been with the Flames physically, but they’ve felt his presence every step of the way.

At practice one day, their teammate and friend gone the next — a tremendous blow for anyone, much less a team preparing for its first season under a new coach.

Grieving together and playing in his honor brought the team closer, forming the kind of bond the players might not have had otherwise. Difficult as Boyd’s death was, it brought everyone on the team closer, pushing them along through the best season in school history.

“God uses everything for the good, even when they look bad,” Gadlin said. “One of the things that definitely good came out of it was that we learned how to be more of a closer team after that experience, because you had to listen to each other and be able to navigate through it all.”

Boyd may not be with the Flames when they face Oregon on Monday. His spirit will certainly be there guiding them.

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