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Liberty Bowl Preview and Prediction: Tulsa vs. Iowa State


Two teams that opened the season against each other will meet up once more to close out their respective campaigns when Iowa State and Tulsa get together on New Year’s Eve in Memphis, Tenn. The Cyclones won the first meeting over the Golden Hurricane, 38-23 back in September, but they enter this game having dropped five of their last seven games. Despite the 2-5 finish, head coach Paul Rhoads has his team in the postseason for the second straight time. It’s also his third bowl game in his four seasons at the helm in Ames.

The Golden Hurricane come into the rematch with the Cyclones having claimed their first Conference USA championship since 2005. Head coach Bill Blankenship led his team to the C-USA West Division crown thanks to a 7-1 conference record and the Hurricane then finished the job with a 33-27 overtime victory over UCF in the conference title game on Dec. 1. The Hurricane are playing in their fifth straight bowl game and a win would tie the school record for victories in a season (11, 2008).

Besides this season’s opener, Iowa State also defeated Tulsa back in 1961, the only other time these teams have met. This matchup also represents the second Liberty Bowl appearance for both of these teams. The Cyclones last played in the Liberty Bowl in 1972, when they lost 31-30 to Georgia Tech, while the Golden Hurricane defeated Fresno State 31-24 in their first appearance in 2005.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl – Iowa State (6-6) vs. Tulsa (10-3)

Date and Time: Dec. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Network: ESPN
Location: Memphis, Tenn.

When the Iowa State Cyclones have the ball:

The Cyclones’ offense is averaging more than 372 yards and 25 points per game, production that ranks them 88th and 82nd in the nation, respectively. They are generating 154.2 yards rushing (69th) and 217.8 yards passing (78th) per contest, but they are coming off of two of their most productive offensive performances of the season. In Iowa State’s last two games, a win over Kansas and a loss to West Virginia, the offense averaged nearly 250 yards rushing and 472 total yards.

The Cyclones are on their third starting quarterback of the season, as redshirt freshman Sam Richardson started the past two games and is expected to be under center against the Golden Hurricane. Richardson has completed 62 percent of his passes thus far with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Senior Steele Jantz has seen the most playing time at quarterback, and he will get the call should Richardson get hurt.

Quarterbacks in the Cyclones’ offense also get plenty of opportunities to run the ball, as Jantz and Richardson are the third- and fourth-leading rushers on the team respectively. Richardson’s carries may increase, however, as the team will be without leading ground-gainer Shontrelle Johnson in this game. Johnson, a junior, who is leading the team in both carries (115) and rushing yards (504), suffered a knee injury in practice leading up to the bowl game and won’t be on the field against Tulsa. Lead back duties now fall to fellow junior James White, who is averaging 5.3 yards per carry as the team’s second-leading rusher. Jeff Woody, another junior, will likely see a fair number of carries as well.

Sophomore wide receiver Josh Lentz is the Cyclones’ most dangerous receiving threat, as he leads the team with six touchdown catches and 430 yards. Senior wideouts Aaron Horne and Chris Young are first and second on the team in receptions respectively, and have combined for five touchdown receptions. That’s the same number of touchdown catches that junior tight end Ernst Brun Jr. has, as he is one of 10 different Cyclones to haul in a scoring strike this season.

Tulsa’s defense has put together a solid season, ranking 17th in the nation in rushing defense (121.2 ypg) and 34th in total defense (353.9 ypg). The Golden Hurricane are giving up 24.2 points per game (42nd), and are top five in both sacks (3.7 per game, third) and tackles for loss (8 per game, fourth). Three Tulsa defenders, all seniors, were named first-team All-Conference USA – linebacker DeAundre Brown, defensive end Cory Dorris and defensive back Dexter McCoil. Brown and Dorris combined for 15 sacks, while Brown and McCoil are the team’s top two tacklers.

When the Tulsa Golden Hurricane have the ball:

The Golden Hurricane’s offense features one of the nation’s most productive running games, led by three players with at least 700 rushing yards. Tulsa is averaging more than 240 yards on the ground per game, which ranks them 11th in the nation in that category, and overall they are generating more than 460 yards of offense (26th) per game. The Hurricane are averaging 35 points per contest, and have topped that mark on five separate occasions.

Tulsa is led on the ground by junior Trey Watts, who leads the team with 959 rushing yards. Fellow junior Ja’Terian Douglas is second on the team in both yards (857) and rushing touchdowns (seven). The last of the 700-yard rushers is senior Alex Singleton with 765. While he may just be third in rushing yards, Singleton is tops on both his team and Conference USA and tied for fifth nationally with 22 touchdowns, 21 of those coming on the ground.

Nebraska transfer Cody Green took over as Tulsa’s starting quarterback this season and he has posted respectable numbers. He’s thrown for 2,499 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and has rushed for 225 yards with three scores.

Sophomore wide receiver Keyarris Garrett has emerged as Tulsa’s top pass-catcher this season with a team-high 64 catches, 826 yards and nine touchdowns. Senior running back Willie Carter has been a productive weapon out of the backfield, catching 48 passes for 363 yards and three scores. Junior wideout Jordan James and Watts are the only other Golden Hurricane players with 30 or more receptions. Besides Garrett, Carter and James, sophomore receiver Thomas Roberson and Singleton are the only Tulsa players to record a touchdown catch this season.

Iowa State’s defense has fared pretty well against the run, holding teams to 165 yards rushing per game, which ranks 68th in the nation. However, they are No. 109 out 120 FBS schools in passing defense (279.7 ypg), which is why they are allowing nearly 445 yards per game (98th). Opponents are averaging less than 24 points per game, but they have allowed more than their season average in three of their past four games. Iowa State lost one of its senior leaders, linebacker Jake Knott, to injury earlier in the season, but still has fellow senior A.J. Klein, the team’s leading tackler the past two seasons, as the linchpin of its defense.

Final Analysis

Even though Iowa State won the first matchup with Tulsa rather handily, 38-23, that was back in September. The Cyclones won just five more games after their season opener, while the Golden Hurricane doubled that with 10 victories and won their conference championship. It is safe to say that these are considerably different teams now than they were three months ago, with the Golden Hurricane entering this contest with all of the momentum. To make matters worse, the Cyclones are already without one of their best and most experienced defensive players and will also be missing its leading rusher on an offense that’s on its third starting quarterback. Tulsa’s offense features one of the nation’s best rushing attacks, and I think the Hurricane have too many weapons for the Cyclones to contend with. Also look for Tulsa’s pass rush advantage – both in generating sacks (third in the nation) and preventing them (sixth) – to play an important role in this one. Iowa State and Tulsa have similar nicknames inspired by the weather prevalent in their respective locations. So what happens when a cyclone goes up against a hurricane? Scientifically speaking, I have no idea, but as it relates to the gridiron, I’ll take the Golden Hurricane to win this round.

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Prediction: Tulsa 31, Iowa State 24

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