Tulsa capped one of the greatest seasons in school history by relying on the two strengths that carried the Golden Hurricane all season: running the ball and rushing the passer. Old school, smash-mouth football.
Trey Watts rushed for 149 yards, Alex Singleton ran for three scores and Tulsa avenged a season-opening loss to Iowa State with a 31-17 victory in the rainy AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Monday.
Tulsa's defense recorded five sacks, forced three turnovers and held Iowa State scoreless over the final three quarters as the Golden Hurricane erased an early 10-point deficit.
"We never wavered, not for a second," said Watts, selected as the game's most valuable player.
The Golden Hurricane (11-3) posted the second 11-win season in school history. Tulsa, which has the smallest enrollment of any Football Bowl Subdivision program, also finished 11-3 in 2008.
Iowa State (6-7) rallied to beat Tulsa 38-23 on Sept. 1, but the Golden Hurricane put together the comeback in the rematch. Tulsa trailed 17-7 at the end of the first quarter.
"They've accomplished something nobody else at Tulsa has done," Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said. "That's a huge deal for us. We've had a team that won 11 before, so we tied that. We had a team that won the Liberty Bowl before and won Conference USA. We've done that. But we did it all in the same year (this season)."
Both teams had changed quite a bit since that regular-season opener.
Iowa State's Steele Jantz, who threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third score in the season opener, lost his starting job to redshirt freshman Sam Richardson. The Cyclones' leading rusher (Shontrelle Johnson) and top tackler (Jake Knott) from the Sept. 1 game missed the Liberty Bowl with injuries.
Tulsa linebacker Shawn Jackson, a three-year starter, was serving a three-game suspension during the last meeting with Iowa State. Jackson sacked Richardson on consecutive plays late in the first quarter Monday and forced a fumble in the game's closing minutes.
"I felt like I left my guys down (in September)," Jackson said. "I wanted to give the defense a little spark."
After going 6 for 7 for 114 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, Richardson was 4 of 14 for 15 yards with an interception the rest of the day while battling flu-like symptoms. Jantz replaced Richardson early in the fourth quarter.
"You can't ask much more from a young player like Sam," said Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein, who tied a Liberty Bowl record with 19 tackles. "He's going to have a great career the rest of his time here at Iowa State. That's the type of people we want to build this program around, people that will give it up, no matter what condition they're in."
Iowa State capitalized on big plays to take an early 17-7 lead in front of a partisan crowd. About 80 percent of the fans were dressed in Iowa State cardinal-and-gold.
After Edwin Arceo capped Iowa State's opening series with a 33-yard field goal, Jeremy Reeves put the Cyclones in front 10-0 with a 31-yard interception return midway through the first quarter.
Tulsa answered with Singleton's 2-yard touchdown dive, but Richardson connected with tight end Ernst Brun for a 69-yard score on Iowa State's ensuing possession.
But after moving the ball at will in the opening period, Iowa State's offense did virtually nothing right the rest of the day.
"Games are often won and lost at the line of scrimmage, and we did not play a physical enough brand of football to move the sticks enough and stay on the field enough to get it in the red zone, let alone get it in the end zone," Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said.
Tulsa took the lead for good with a pair of touchdown runs -- an 8-yarder from quarterback Cody Green and a 2-yarder from Singleton -- in the first four minutes of the second quarter. Tulsa extended the lead to 28-17 in the third quarter on Singleton's 1-yard dive on fourth-and-goal.
The Golden Hurricane's comeback followed a familiar pattern. Tulsa headed into the bowl game ranked third in the nation in sacks (48) and 11th in rushing (240.2).
"These guys are a very tough-minded, physical and resilient team," Blankenship said. "I couldn't be prouder."
A FEW NOTES
• Tulsa completes the 2012 season as the champions of Conference USA and the 2012 AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
• Tulsa improved its record to 11-3 on the season. This is the second season in which the Golden Hurricane has recorded 11 wins in school history. The 2008 team also finished 11-3.
• Junior running back Trey Watts was voted Most Valuable Player and Tulsa's Most Outstanding Offensive Player of the 2012 AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Watts was also selected MVP of the Conference USA Championship Game.
• Junior linebacker Shawn Jackson was named Tulsa's Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
• Tulsa made its 19th bowl appearance in the 2012 AutoZone Liberty Bowl, and improved its record to 9-10 in bowl games.
• The Liberty Bowl was Tulsa's eighth bowl game in the last 10 years, and Tulsa improved its record to 5-3 in last eight bowl games.
• The Tulsa defense allowed 268 total yards, the fewest TU has allowed in a bowl game since the 2009 GMAC Bowl when it allowed 223 total yards to Ball State.
• Tulsa rushed for 317 yards, the second-most ever by TU in a bowl game, and most since the 2009 GMAC Bowl when it rushed for 439 yards vs. Ball State.
• Tulsa's 317 rushing yards marked the fourth time this season the Golden Hurricane has rushed for more than 300 yards in a game, and the 10th time it gained at least 200 yards on the ground.
• Tulsa gained just 93 yards passing. It was the second time this season the Golden Hurricane has passed for fewer than 100 yards in a game. TU won both contests. The Hurricane passed for 90 yards in a 45-38 win at Marshall.
• The Tulsa defense recorded three sacks. It was the ninth time this season the Hurricane has tallied at least three sacks in a game.
• After Iowa State scored its second touchdown, and second score in three offensive possessions, the Tulsa defense forced the Cyclones into seven punts, two interceptions, a fumble and a missed field goal for the remainder of the game.
• The Tulsa defense allowed Iowa State to gain just nine first downs, the fewest of the season. The previous low was 11 first downs by 11 first downs by Tulane on Sept. 8. It was the fewest first downs allowed in a bowl game since the 2009 GMAC Bowl when it allowed just nine first downs to Ball State.
• Tulsa won seven games this season in which it trailed. The Golden Hurricane trailed Iowa State, 17-7 in the first quarter, and came back to win the game, 31-17. TU also defeated Tulane, Fresno State, UAB, Marshall, Rice and UCF (Nov. 17) after falling behind.
• Tulsa pulled out its second win of the season after trailing by 10 or more points. The Hurricane also won after trailing Fresno State 20-7.
• Trey Watts totaled 249 all-purpose yards -- 149 rushing, 17 receiving and 83 on kickoff returns. It marked the fifth time this season Watts has totaled more than 200 all-purpose yards.
• Senior running back Alex Singleton scored three touchdowns in the game, marking his 22nd, 23rd and 24th touchdowns of the season. He extended his school record to 43 rushing touchdowns and 44 overall touchdowns in his career.
• Singleton scored three rushing touchdowns for the fourth time this season and sixth time of his career.
• Junior running back Trey Watts ran for a season-high 149 yards in the game and eclipsed 1,000 yards for the season. He is Tulsa's first 1,000-yard rusher since the 2008 season when Tarrion Adams (2005-08) rushed for 1,523 yards.
• With 149 yards in the game, Watts recorded his fifth 100-yard game of the 2012 season and seventh of his career. Watts' 149 rushing-yard total is his highest total since he rushed for 159 yards against Oklahoma State on Sept. 17, 2011. Watt's five 100-yard rushing games is the most for a Tulsa player in a single season since Tarrion Adams had eight such games in 2008.
• Junior linebacker Shawn Jackson recorded two sacks on back-to-back plays in the first quarter, raising his career total to 18 sacks. Jackson sat out the first meeting with Iowa State due to suspension.
• Junior safety Demarco Nelson intercepted Iowa State quarterback Sam Richardson's pass at the 12:23 mark of the third quarter. It was Nelson's second interception of the season and eighth of his career.
• Tulsa was 1-for-2 on fourth down in the game. The Golden Hurricane converted 21-of-37 fourth downs this season for a .568 percentage.
• Freshman kicker Daniel Schwarz finished the game 4-4 on extra points and 1-1 on field goals (40 yards) in the game. He made 12 field goals in 2012, and finished the season with the third-most field goals by a freshman, trailing the 13 set by David Fuess (1986) and James Anderson (1994).
• Dexter McCoil recorded his fifth interception of the season with 3:55 left in the game. He extended his school record with 18 career interceptions. McCoil tied the Conference USA record for career interceptions. His total of 18 interceptions matches Anthony Floyd of Louisville from 1999-02.
• Shawn Jackson forced a fumble and sophomore defensive end Brentom Todd recovered the fumble with 1:16 left in the game. It was Jackson's third forced fumble of the season and Todd's second fumble recovery of the season.