John Klein: This one raises the bar for Tulsa
BY JOHN KLEIN Senior Sports Columnist
Tuesday, January 01, 2013
1/01/13 at 7:38 AM
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Original Print Headline: This one raises the bar for Tulsa
MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said the Golden Hurricane embraced its underdog role.
The smallest school playing FBS college football, TU proved it is not scared of the big boys. In fact, it proved it can beat them, too.
"This was a big deal for us," said Blankenship. "It is why we were looking forward to this opponent, because they represented the Big 12 Conference."
Tulsa dominated the final three quarters of the Liberty Bowl.
"They've accomplished some things no one else has," said Blankenship.
The victory allowed the Golden Hurricane to raise the level of Tulsa football. TU had never won 11 games, a conference championship and a bowl game in the same season.
The Golden Hurricane pounded away at Iowa State's highly-regarded defense with a trio of punishing running backs, quarterback Cody Green was steady and TU's defense vicious in a 31-17 victory over the Cyclones on Monday in the Liberty Bowl.
"Tulsa is a very good football team, and I told you guys that all the way back to August," said Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, whose team beat Tulsa on Sept. 1. "They were overall the better football team (today).
"They really understand who they are. They hit you in the mouth and move the ball on the ground."
"This is just a very tough-minded and resilient football team," he said. "We were that way in this game and that way all season."
And like all good teams, the Golden Hurricane got better throughout the season.
"We're playing our best football of the season right now," said Blankenship. "That's what you want to do. You want to be at your best at the end of the season and we were."
It was a reversal of the first meeting when Iowa State won 38-23 by dominating the final three quarters.
"Winning 11 games in college football is really, really hard to do," said Rhoads. "They are significantly better now as evidenced by this game.
"This was a team that won seven games straight after they lost to us in the opener. In doing that, they really figured out what their identity was. Their identity is a very physical football team that runs the ball with much success."
Tulsa hammered Iowa State's defense, running for 317 yards.
"They have three backs that could get it done," said Iowa State's A.J. Klein, a two-time All-Big 12 linebacker. "Obviously it's a very improved offensive football team that Tulsa has.
"Tulsa is a great team. They were ready for us."
This was not finesse. There was no mystery to what Tulsa wanted to do. Iowa State just couldn't stop it.
"That's who we have become," said Blankenship.
Trey Watts, named the game's MVP, ran for 149 yards.
His father, J.C. Watts, was a two-time offensive MVP at the Orange Bowl for the Oklahoma Sooners in the 1980s and was at the presentation ceremony when his son got the Liberty Bowl MVP trophy.
"That's what he (Trey) does all of the time," said Blankenship. "He gets the tough yards.
"He's just a football player. He was unrecruited and he wanted to prove he could play. He has."
TU didn't need to throw much, but when it did Cody Green was very efficient. He hit 11 passes for 93 yards after a huge early mistake - an interception returned for a touchdown.
That interception gave Iowa State a 10-0 lead barely 10 minutes into the game.
It also marked the end for the Cyclones.
From that point, this was all Tulsa.
If not for a horrible start, this would have been a complete rout.
As it was, once Tulsa settled down in the second quarter, the Golden Hurricane made it look easy.
After the first quarter, Iowa State got just five first downs, 133 yards and zero points.
Iowa State, finishing 6-7, was completely overwhelmed for most of this game.
Sure, the Cyclones beat Tulsa to open the season, but this was a different time and Tulsa was a completely different team.
Tulsa improved. Iowa State did not.
"They've kept a great attitude and have stayed focused all year," said Blankenship.
As a result, the Golden Hurricane capped off one of its most memorable seasons in recent history with a lopsided victory over a Big 12 school.
Tulsa finishes 11-3 with trophies for winning Conference USA and the Liberty Bowl.
The Golden Hurricane, within a few plays of a dramatically better season, was ready to play against the Cyclones.
Blankenship had said all week this was a big opportunity for Tulsa, a chance to prove it belonged among the nation's top teams.
"We've missed some opportunities against other schools and have been beaten by some really good teams," said Blankenship of TU's lack of success in recent years against teams from power conferences. "But this was an opportunity for us to take a step in the right direction.
"And, to get a little more attention on the national stage."
Trey Watts looks for running room Monday. Watts tallied 249 all-purpose yards and earned Liberty Bowl MVP honors. TOM GILBERT / Tulsa World