MEMPHIS — Ironically, Iowa State tempered outside enthusiasm about its Liberty Bowl matchup against Tulsa because it was so good against the Golden Hurricane the first time they met.
So the burden is on the Cyclone footballers Monday (2:30 p.m., ESPN) to be as effective on the last day of December as they were on the first day of September, when they toppled Tulsa in Ames, 38-23.
“Very seldom to you get second-chances in life,” Tulsa Coach Bill Blankenship said Sunday. “It’s kind of nice the Liberty Bowl affords us a second-chance this year.”
It was the Golden Hurricane, however, that went on to a 10-3 record and a Conference USA championship. Iowa State, playing in a significantly tougher league known as the Big 12, is 6-6. And it doesn’t want to be 6-7, like it was at the end of last season after losing to Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl.
“It’s something we’ve very much addressed,” ISU Coach Paul Rhoads said. “It’s our fourth year and we have one winning season (7-6 in 2009). It’s our third bowl game, and only one winning season. To finish up 7-6 for a second is very important for our kids.”
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that it affects your off-season,” said Cyclones defensive coordinator Wally Burnham. “If you win, then you can sell the team that ‘Hey, we worked hard, we had those extra practices, now we get to go right into our off-season and start building again on that success.’
“If you lose, then you go into your off-season saying ‘You know, we lost the bowl game, blah, blah, whatever, and we’ve got to get where we can win those games.’ It becomes more of a negative type of deal than a positive.”
The rub is this: Tulsa has a good team. It had a good team when it played at Jack Trice Stadium four months ago, and built a 16-7 first-quarter lead. But it had three turnovers to Iowa State’s one, and the Cyclones’ enforced their will on offense with 90 plays and 441 total yards to the Hurricane’s 358.
Tulsa went on to do better. It is 11th in the nation in rushing with 240 yards per game. It’s third in quarterback sacks with 3.7 per game, and fifth in the fewest sacks allowed with 0.7 per game. It’s in the top 31 nationally in total offense and total defense.
Tulsa has three wins over bowl teams in Central Florida (twice) and Fresno State. ISU has three wins over bowl teams in TCU, Baylor and Tulsa.
The Hurricane aren’t novices at this bowl biz. They are 54-25 over the last six seasons, with three bowl wins in that time. The Cyclones are 3-8 in bowls, 1-1 under Rhoads. They beat Minnesota in the 2009 Insight Bowl.
Iowa State was a 1-point favorite as of Sunday afternoon. Tulsa was a 2-point pick when it lost in Ames.
Senior Steele Jantz had one of his best days back then, passing for 281 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Shontrelle Johnson carried 18 times for 120 yards and a TD.
Now, the Cyclones’ quarterback is red-shirt freshman Sam Richardson, making his second career start. The No. 1 running back is James White, because Johnson suffered a knee injury in a December practice.
Richardson took the reins during the next-to-last game of the season, ISU’s 51-23 win at Kansas that clinched its bowl-eligibility. He led the Cyclones to scores in six of his first seven drives, completing 23 of 27 passes for four touchdowns.
He wasn’t as effective as the starter the following week in a 31-24 loss to West Virginia, hitting on 13 of 31 passes for 162 yards, though he did throw for three more TDs.
“You’re looking at three different preparations (for Richardson), and this is the one that probably excites me the most,” Rhoads said.
“This one, he’s had a lot longer. He’s seen the film, studied the film to prepare and be comfortable with that preparation to start. Hopefully, that pays off on game day.”
White has plenty of experience carrying the ball, with 1,212 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Rhoads made it sound Sunday like red-shirt freshman DeVondrick Nealy of Monticello, Fla., will get his chances here, too.
Nealy carried nine times for 70 yards in ISU’s 37-3 over Western Illinois on Sept. 15, but has had just seven more rushes since then.
Tulsa has three known-quantities at running back in Trey Watts, Ja’Terian Douglas and Alex Singleton, who all have from 765 to 959 rushing yards. Singleton has 22 touchdowns.
Monday’s forecast here is for temperatures in the low 40s with a 60 percent chance for afternoon showers.