MEMPHIS — Well, the barbecue was delicious and Beale Street was delightful.
The football portion of Iowa State’s Liberty Bowl experience, however, was as dreary as Monday’s Memphis rain.
Tulsa beat the Cyclones, 31-17. For the second-straight year, a bowl loss put ISU’s final record at 6-7. Bowl-trip or not, that’s a losing season.
Thanks to lightning-strikes for touchdowns on both sides of the ball, the Cyclones shot to a 17-7 first-quarter lead. They looked crisp, hungry, ready. Then they spent the next three quarters doing nothing of note before an ESPN audience.
Tulsa gradually performed, at least to a degree, like the two Big 12 offenses from Oklahoma schools that chewed up the Cyclones in the second half of the regular-season. The Golden Hurricane came to Memphis to run the ball and ran it to the tune of 317 rushing yards, 77 more than their already-impressive average.
But unlike in the Cyclones’ 38-23 win over Tulsa in Ames on Sept. 1, Iowa State’s offense was stymied. Tulsa’s defensive line overwhelmed the Cyclones’ blockers, and red-shirt freshman quarterback Sam Richardson lost confidence and sharpness as the second quarter progressed.
He may also have lost focus.
“He looked dazed because he was sick,” Cyclones Coach Paul Rhoads said. “A gritty performance by the young man who was throwing up all night. A flu bug came up late, came up after dinner last night. So looking dazed had nothing to do with it.
“I commend Sam for going as long as he did. The decision to go as long was because he’s a good football player. He didn’t want to disrupt the rhythm of our football team and what he was providing for us, but there was a time when he didn’t have the strength to finish up.”
Things didn’t get any better with senior Steele Jantz in for fourth-quarter relief. The die was cast. Tulsa had enforced its will.
“They’re a very good football team,” Rhoads said. “I told you that all week, I told you that dating back to the month of August.”
Tulsa finished 11-3, and 11-win teams are good. Especially when they can rush they way the Hurricane rushed. Not that Iowa State’s defense offered much pushback.
“We had a lot of missed tackles, a lot of missed assignments,” said downhearted ISU senior linebacker A.J. Klein. “They were ready for us. Obviously they made adjustments and we didn’t.”
One big adjustment was that Tulsa didn’t turn the ball over three times like it did at Jack Trice Stadium four months earlier. The Hurricane had one turnover Monday. It looked like a whopper at the time, but soon became a footnote.
With ISU up 3-0, senior cornerback stepped in front of Tulsa receiver Keyarris Garrett, picked off a Cody Green pass, and dashed 31 yards for a touchdown midway through the first period.
All that did was remind the Hurricane to stick to what they do well, which was split 50 carries among three different effective tailbacks, and use several of Green’s quarterback-keepers to pile up more yards and first-downs.
After Richardson hit wide-open tight end Ernst Brun for a 69-yard score to make it 17-7 late in the first, the spigot was shut off entirely for the Cyclones.
Richardson began the game with five straight completions, and had an astronomic quarterback rating of 269.7 after the first quarter. It was a mere 105.4 when Jantz came on with 12:49 left. Richardson had 10 completions in 21 throws, and an interception.
Tulsa brought the defensive pressure over and over, and Richardson wilted. It was understandable for a player making his second career start, healthy or bug-ridden. He’ll have better days. If, that is, his blockers give him the chance.
The game started so well for Iowa State. But it started so well on Sept. 1 for Tulsa, when it led the Cyclones 16-7 after the first quarter. You have to show up in the second, third and fourth.
“We came ready to play, obviously by the way we started the game,” Rhoads said. “Then we were outplayed for the next 45 minutes.”
It wasn’t as if the Cyclones were in a hostile environment. An estimated 25,000 ISU supporters were in the crowd of 53,687. The tailgating scene looked like an extension of Trice Stadium for a home game. But the much-smaller band of blue-clads from Oklahoma were the ones who lingered in the stadium after the game to party.
“It hurts because of all the fans that were here and the love they showed us,” Brun said.
But at least that barbecue was tasty.
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