RIVER CITY BLUES
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – There weren’t any new wrinkles, fancy plays or surprise schemes that the Tulsa football team unveiled.
The Golden Hurricane simply stuck to their strengths – pounding the football and creating pressure in the backfield – to overpower Iowa State.
After a promising first quarter for the Cyclones, Tulsa dominated Iowa State for the final three in a 31-17 victory at the 54th AutoZone Liberty Bowl at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium Monday.
“We came ready to play, which was obvious by the way we started the game,” said Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, whose squad held a 17-7 advantage after the opening frame. “And then we were outplayed for the next 45 minutes.”
Tulsa (11-3) gashed the Cyclones for 317 yards on the ground at 5.3 yards a pop, the fourth time they eclipsed the 300-yard rushing mark this year.
The Golden Hurricane also took advantage of nine Iowa State penalties for 84 yards – both bowl records for the Cyclones – to rattle off 24 unanswered points, repeating the run Iowa State made in the first meeting between the squads Sept. 1.
“There wasn’t any secret to that,” said Rhoads of Tulsa’s rushing attack which racked up more than 3,100 yards this season. “As this season wore on they really understood that their offensive brand of football was physical, hit-you-in-the-mouth, move the line of scrimmage, run a variety of backs and average 240 yards on the ground.”
Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship couldn’t quibble with the assessment.
“I think it’s who we became,” said Blankenship. “The ability to have three good running backs and keep them fresh, then continue to throw and mix it up, is important for our offense.”
Picking up where he left off in their first battle, Trey Watts led the Golden Hurricane with 149 yards on 25 carries, while Alex Singleton provided a punch near the goal line with three touchdown runs totaling five yards. The ground-and-pound approach was no surprise to the Cyclones, they just couldn’t make the plays to stop it.
“I thought we lacked energy in the second quarter and I think a lot of it had to do with playing a really good football team,” said Rhoads.
Tulsa took advantage of the lapse in the second, cashing in twice on great field position for a pair of quick touchdowns during a three and half minute span to take the lead for good at 21-17 with 11:10 to play in the first half.
Cody Green capped a 4-play, 41-yard drive with an 8-yard keeper up the middle before Singleton ran in untouched from two yards out to punctuate a 6-play, 59-yard trek.
Even when the Cyclones could get a hand on the Tulsa’s ball carriers, they often couldn’t wrap up.
“There were a lot of missed tackles and a lot of missed assignments,” said A.J. Klein, who led the Cyclone defense with 19 tackles.
Jeremy Reeves provided one of the few defensive highlights for the Cyclones, snaring a pass from Green and racing 31 yards down the sideline to give Iowa State a 10-0 lead midway through the first.
Ernst Brun answered Singleton’s two-yard TD dive with a 69-yard catch and run to extend the cushion to 17-7 late in the frame, though it was the Cyclones’ opening drive that provided the most promise.
Sam Richardson completed his first five passes to set up a 33-yard field goal for Edwin Arceo, though Richardson – who came down with the flu after dinner Sunday night – was out of sorts the rest of the game.
“It was a gritty performance from a young man who was throwing up all night. I commend Sam for going as long as he did,” said Rhoads, who replaced Richardson with Steele Jantz in the fourth quarter.
Richardson was taken out for one play in the second quarter after taking a hard hit that left him shaken up, but it was his lack of strength from the illness that led Rhodes to replacing his starter.
“The decision to go as long (as we did) is because he’s a good football player, and I didn’t want to disrupt the rhythm of our football team and what he was providing for us. There was a time we he just didn’t have the strength to finish up.”
After his 5-for-5 start, Richardson completed just 5 of his next 16 passes, while also throwing his first interception of the season.
Jantz didn’t fare much better and turned the ball over twice in the fourth.
Singleton added another 1-yard plunge late in the third quarter before Daniel Schwarz tacked on a 40-yard field goal early in the fourth. The loss gave the Cyclones their second straight 6-7 finish and their third straight losing season.
It was a difficult final chapter for a senior class that’s keyed a resurgence for the program and since Rhoads took over but left on a sour note.
“The loss is a huge letdown just for the entire team, especially our senior class. We had 25,000 plus fans. We obviously wanted to win for them, just for making the trip,” said Klein. “Obviously it’s a very improved offensive football team that Tulsa has. They were ready for us.”
While the season closes with unfinished business, Rhoads remains optimistic on the direction of his program.
“Is successful defined as 6-7? No,” said Rhoads. “Is what we’ve accomplished in four years, when you look at where our program was and you look at the history of Iowa State football? Yeah, this is another successful season that we have to continue to build from.”
Iowa State sold nearly 14,000 tickets for the Liberty Bowl This year’s trek to Memphis marks the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Liberty Bowl game where Georgia Tech edged the Cyclones 31-30 The Liberty Bowl is Iowa State’s 12th bowl appearance since going to the Sun and Liberty Bowls under Johnny Majors … Rhoads is the first coach in ISU history to take his team to three bowls in his first four years. … Rhoads is 1-23 when his team allows 24 points or more.