Iowa State beat the eventual Conference USA champions in this season’s opener and heads into the Liberty Bowl on Monday motivated to finish with a winning record for the first time in three years.
Tulsa (10-3) won 11 games for the only time in program history in 2008, but it gave itself an opportunity to tie that mark with an overtime victory over Central Florida in the conference title game Dec. 1. Alex Singleton’s school-record 41st career touchdown, a 1-yard dive, gave the Golden Hurricane their first C-USA championship since they won the inaugural game in 2005.
“It certainly gives you momentum. You want to go into bowl season with a win,” coach Bill Blankenship said. “We’re excited to be going to Memphis. That’s big time.”
A rematch with Iowa State may also be appealing after the Cyclones (6-6) rallied from an early deficit for a 38-23 home win over Tulsa on Sept. 1.
The Golden Hurricane led 16-7 after the opening quarter of that game but Iowa State took command by scoring the next 24 points. Shontrelle Johnson ran for a career-high 120 yards and a touchdown in that victory while Steele Jantz passed for two TDs.
Johnson, though, didn’t gain more than 73 yards in any of his next 11 games and is out for this one after injuring his right knee in a practice earlier this month.
Jantz, meanwhile, was replaced by freshman Sam Richardson during a 51-23 victory at Kansas on Nov. 17, which made Iowa State bowl eligible for the third time in coach Paul Rhoads’ four seasons.
The Cyclones defeated Minnesota in the 2009 Insight Bowl to finish 7-6. They were 6-7 last season after losing to Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
“This is a football team that’s been very driven. We’ve had zero motivational problems in all 12 weeks,” Rhoads said. “Their reaction to this bowl bid and the opportunity to play Tulsa was ecstatic. They’re excited to be playing football in December.
“The expectations in this program from day one are to win bowl games.”
Iowa State, though, doesn’t head into this bowl game with much momentum, having lost five of seven after a 4-1 start that included an upset at then-No. 15 TCU on Oct. 6.
After going 23 of 27 for 250 yards and four touchdowns against Kansas, Richardson completed only 13 of 31 passes for 162 yards — in part to due to blustery conditions — in a 31-24 loss to West Virginia on Nov. 23, although he did connect on three TDs and run for 119 yards.
Tulsa junior quarterback Cody Green, a transfer from Nebraska, has nine of his 20 total touchdowns over the last four games, and the Golden Hurricane also feature a trio of potent running backs.
Singleton, Trey Watts and Ja’Terian Douglas each have topped 760 yards this season for one of the nation’s top ground attacks (240.2 yards per game). Watts has a team-best 959 yards and Douglas has 857, while Singleton has scored 22 touchdowns.
Iowa State likely won’t have three-time All-Big 12 linebacker and captain Jake Knott to help stop those runners as he’s recovering from shoulder surgery.
The Cyclones have the 113th-ranked pass defense in the FBS, allowing 279.7 yards per game, but they held Tulsa to 198 and intercepted two of Green’s 49 attempts.
Iowa State will try to force some more turnovers while earning its third win in five bowl games. The Cyclones are 3-8 all-time in the postseason, including a 31-30 loss to Georgia Tech in the 1972 Liberty Bowl.
Tulsa had a three-game bowl win streak snapped last year with a 24-21 defeat to BYU in the Armed Forces Bowl. After winning the C-USA title in 2005, the Golden Hurricane defeated Fresno State 31-24 in the Liberty Bowl.
Kevin Lonnquist’s Take
Why to watch: Tulsa is the quietest 10-win team you’re going to see this year. The Golden Hurricane is a physical group and can play with a lot of BCS teams. This team usually don’t beat itself. Quarterback Cody Green is a heady leader. The Cyclones feature quarterback Sam B. Richardson who is on the national stage after two pretty solid games to close the regular season.
Better channel surf: The casual fan may take one look at this matchup and say, “Next’’ because these two teams are in flyover country. And sequels aren’t as always as good. These teams met the opening week of the 2012 season in Ames, a 37-23 ISU win. Plus, there has to be some marathons on the PsyFy channel that may be more interesting.
Kevin’s pick: Tulsa 30, Iowa State 26