MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Iowa State football team goes by a motto of starting fast and finishing fast.
The Cyclones blew out of the gates Monday in the 54th annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Conference USA champion Tulsa.
Its finish, however, was pedestrian.
The Golden Hurricane (11-3) scored 24 unanswered points as they dominated the final three quarters en route to a 31-17 win in front of 53,678 at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
Iowa State jumped to a 17-7 first-quarter lead but wilted defensively under a relentless Tulsa rush attack and sputtered offensively behind flu-ridden starting quarterback Sam Richardson.
“We came ready to play, obviously, by the way we started the game, and then were outplayed for the next 45 minutes,” ISU coach Paul Rhoads said.
It was a reversal of fortune for both teams as Iowa State beat Tulsa 38-23 in both team’s season opener. The Cyclones scored 24 unanswered points after falling behind 16-7.
Rhoads couldn’t put a finger on what went wrong with Iowa State after the first quarter.
“We have to analyze that and try to come up with the answers as we move forward,” Rhoads said. “I thought we lacked energy in the second quarter and I think a lot of it had to do with us playing a very good football team.”
The Cyclones looked very strong in the opening 15 minutes, getting a 33-yard field from Muscatine grad Edwin Arceo on their opening possession and taking a 10-0 lead with 7 minutes, 44 seconds left when Jeremy Reeves jumped in front of a Cody Green pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown.
But after a 69-yard scoring strike from Richardson to Ernst Brun Jr. that put ISU up 17-7 with 3:46 remaining in the first quarter, the Cyclones’ offense went into hibernation.
Iowa State had 135 yards in the first quarter, but just 133 in the final three. The Cyclones failed to gain a first down in the third quarter and didn’t string more than one together in any of the final three quarters as they finished with nine.
“It was simple, they brought pressure from all of the place,” Brun Jr. said. “We knew what they would do ... but we just weren’t clicking. Things didn’t happen for us.”
And while Iowa State couldn’t find any sort of rhythm on offense, Tulsa heated up, especially on the ground.
The Golden Hurricane, who came in with the 11th-best rush attack in the FBS, racked up 317 yards on 60 carries, getting three rushing touchdowns from Alex Singleton, which tied a Liberty Bowl record, and 149 yards on 25 carries from game MVP Trey Watts.
Watts finished with 249 all-purpose yards.
“I don’t know of the 317 yards that I could put a percentage on what was poor tackling,” Rhoads said. “But as the game wore on, it was obvious we did not tackle as well as we did early.”
Tulsa’s comeback started in the first quarter as it took advantage of a short ISU punt and had a first-and-goal to start the second after a 22-yard run by Je’Terian Douglas and an 8-yard scamper to the Cyclones’ 11 by Watts.
Green scored 27 seconds into the quarter on an 8-yard quarterback draw, and the comeback was on.
“The offense drove right down the field after that score (Brun’s touchdown), and the defense began to really kind of put the screws down, tighten them up and make it tough on them as the game went on,” Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said.
After a three-and-out by Iowa State on its next possession, Green hit Willie Carter for 19 yards and Thomas Roberson for 21 to set up a Singleton 2-yard score with 11:10 to go, and the Golden Hurricane never trailed again.
“They didn’t show us anything we didn’t expect ... a lot of missed tackles. A lot of missed assignments. People fitting where they weren’t supposed to,” ISU linebacker A.J. Klein said. “That was, obviously, a very improved offensive football team. They were prepared for us.”
And with the Golden Hurricane clicking offensively, Iowa State and Richardson couldn’t respond.
The Cyclones didn’t get their first first down of the second half until Steele Jantz hit Brun with a 15-yard pass with 12:30 to go in the fourth quarter.
ISU, however, punted three plays later and turned the ball over on each of its final two possessions, a Jantz interception and fumble.
“The loss is a huge letdown for the entire team, especially our senior class,” said Klein who tied a Liberty Bowl record with 19 tackles. “It is hard to lose. Nobody wants to lose.”