By Steve Megargee/The Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tulsa capped one of the greatest seasons in school history by relying on the two strengths that carried the Golden Hurricane all season: running the ball and rushing the passer.
Trey Watts rushed for 149 yards, Alex Singleton ran for three scores and Tulsa avenged a season-opening loss to Iowa State with a 31-17 victory in the rainy Liberty Bowl on Monday.
Tulsa’s defense recorded five sacks, forced three turnovers and held Iowa State scoreless over the final three quarters as the Golden Hurricane erased an early 10-point deficit.
“We never wavered, not for a second,” said Watts, selected as the game’s most valuable player.
The Golden Hurricane (11-3) posted the second 11-win season in school history. Tulsa, which has the smallest enrollment of any Football Bowl Subdivision program, also finished 11-3 in 2008.
Iowa State (6-7) rallied to beat Tulsa 38-23 on Sept. 1, but the Golden Hurricane put together the comeback in the rematch. Tulsa trailed 17-7 at the end of the first quarter.
“They’ve accomplished something nobody else at Tulsa has done,” Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said. “That’s a huge deal for us. We’ve had a team that won 11 before, so we tied that. We had a team that won the Liberty Bowl before and won Conference USA. We’ve done that. But we did it all in the same year (this season).”
Both teams had changed quite a bit since that regular-season opener.
Iowa State’s Steele Jantz, who threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third score in the season opener, lost his starting job to redshirt freshman Sam Richardson. The Cyclones’ leading rusher (Shontrelle Johnson) and top tackler (Jake Knott) from the Sept. 1 game missed the Liberty Bowl with injuries.
Tulsa linebacker Shawn Jackson, a three-year starter, was serving a three-game suspension during the last meeting with Iowa State. Jackson sacked Richardson on consecutive plays late in the first quarter Monday and forced a fumble in the game’s closing minutes.
“I felt like I left my guys down (in September),” Jackson said. “I wanted to give the defense a little spark.”
After going 6 for 7 for 114 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, Richardson was 4 of 14 for 15 yards with an interception the rest of the day while battling flu-like symptoms. Jantz replaced Richardson early in the fourth quarter.
“You can’t ask much more from a young player like Sam,” said Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein, who tied a Liberty Bowl record with 19 tackles. “He’s going to have a great career the rest of his time here at Iowa State. That’s the type of people we want to build this program around, people that will give it up, no matter what condition they’re in.”
Iowa State capitalized on big plays to take an early 17-7 lead in front of a partisan crowd. About 80 percent of the fans were dressed in Iowa State cardinal-and-gold.
After Edwin Arceo capped Iowa State’s opening series with a 33-yard field goal, Jeremy Reeves put the Cyclones in front 10-0 with a 31-yard interception return midway through the first quarter.
Tulsa answered with Singleton’s 2-yard touchdown dive, but Richardson connected with tight end Ernst Brun for a 69-yard score on Iowa State’s ensuing possession.
But after moving the ball at will in the opening period, Iowa State’s offense did virtually nothing right the rest of the day.
“Games are often won and lost at the line of scrimmage, and we did not play a physical enough brand of football to move the sticks enough and stay on the field enough to get it in the red zone, let alone get it in the end zone,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said.
Tulsa took the lead for good with a pair of touchdown runs — an 8-yarder from quarterback Cody Green and a 2-yarder from Singleton — in the first four minutes of the second quarter. Tulsa extended the lead to 28-17 in the third quarter on Singleton’s 1-yard dive on fourth-and-goal.
The Golden Hurricane’s comeback followed a familiar pattern. Tulsa headed into the bowl game ranked third in the nation in sacks (48) and 11th in rushing (240.2).
“These guys are a very tough-minded, physical and resilient team,” Blankenship said. “I couldn’t be prouder.”