Iowa State vs. Tulsa, 2012 Liberty Bowl preview: Reeeemix!

Reese Strickland-US PRESSWIRE

We've got a rematch in Memphis! The first time around, Iowa State absorbed some early blows from Tulsa and rode a sturdy defense and turnovers to a 38-23 win in Ames. 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN.

5 Players To Watch

Deon Broomfield (SLB, Iowa State, Jr.). Basically a third safety at 6'0, 196 pounds, Broomfield gives ISU a bit of a 4-2-5 look, which is designed well to stop offenses like Tulsa's (and most in the Big 12). He picked off two passes and broke up 10 others, which is quite impressive for a "linebacker," and he finished Tulsa off the first time these two programs met this season. With ISU up 31-23, Broomfield picked off a pass at the ISU 39 and returned it 51 yards to set up a short touchdown to put the Cyclones up 15. ISU's defense is at its best when Broomfield is making plays.

DeAundre Brown (MLB, Tulsa, Sr.) and Jared St. John (DE, Tulsa, Sr.). Tulsa is basically a decent-to-good team, but they're the best kind of decent: the active kind. Tulsa ranks 63rd in Off. F/+ and 33rd in Def. F/+, but the Golden Hurricane attack a lot from an alignment that can alternate between 4-4 against a run-heavy squad and a 4-2-5 against spread-'em-out offenses. Regardless of the alignment, however, Brown and St. John give Tulsa an incredibly disruptive presence up front. Brown led Tulsa in tackles (103.0) and tackles for loss (17.0), was second in sacks (9.0) and was third in passes defensed (nine). St. John, meanwhile, nudged Brown out for the sacks lead (11.5) and forced three fumbles.

Tulsa logged a ridiculous 104.0 tackles for loss and 48 sacks -- each third in the country behind Stanford and Arizona State -- and even in a loss the first time around, the Golden Hurricane brought down ISU quarterback Steele Jantz four times. Brown and St. John combined for 14.0 tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks in that game.

Cody Green (QB, Tulsa, Jr.). The Nebraska transfer was, in a word, horrible against ISU on September 1. It was his first start for the Golden Hurricane, and it looked like it. Green completed just 23 of 49 passes for 198 yards, two touchdowns, two picks and two sacks (average yards per pass attempt: 3.5) and carried seven times for minus-3 yards. Again, pretty awful. After the Iowa State game, however, Green improved dramatically, completing 56 percent of his passes (still pretty low), throwing 15 touchdown passes to eight interceptions, taking just six sacks and rushing for 281 non-sack yards and three touchdowns. Tulsa's passing game is quick and relatively conservative, and Green's completion percentage just isn't high enough to make Tulsa's an elite offense, but there's no question that he has looked much, much better since the trip to Ames. How much of his struggles were due to Iowa State's defense, and how much were due to first-start jitters and issues? We'll see.

Sam Richardson (QB, Iowa State, RSFr.). For each of the last two seasons, Steele Jantz has begun the year as ISU's starter before eventually being usurped by a redshirt freshman with lower upside and a higher floor. Jantz makes more good plays than either sophomore Jared Barnett (his 2011 replacement) or current starter Sam Richardson, but his error rate is too high. Iowa State has a Top 35 defense and solid special teams. The Cyclones just need someone to avoid catastrophe, and after being thrust into the starting role following injuries, Richardson seized control of the job, completing 62 percent of his passes, throwing seven touchdowns and avoiding even a single sack or interception in parts of three games. If he is still sack- and pick-free after facing the Tulsa defense, Iowa State will probably be the Liberty Bowl champion.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. The first game was pretty fun. Iowa State scored early on a long touchdown pass, Tulsa surged to a 16-7 lead at the end of the first quarter, Iowa State bounced back to take a 24-16 lead, and the Cyclones put away a 38-23 win with the aforementioned late pick and easy touchdown. There were 800 yards, four turnovers, and three lead changes. Nothing wrong with that, right?

2. Tulsa is pretty fun in general. The offense is actually rather conservative, all told. The passing game is based on efficiency rather than explosiveness, but the Golden Hurricane do get a lot of big plays from a trio of running backs: Trey Watts, Ja'Terian Douglas and short-yardage guy Alex Singleton (combined: 2,581 yards, 31 touchdowns). Second-year head coach Bill Blankenship has tamped down some, but not all, of Tulsa's high-octane ways, but he makes up for it with an incredibly aggressive, play-making defense. It is difficult to argue with the results so far; Tulsa is 18-8 under Blankenship and, in 2012, won its first Conference USA title since 2005.

3. Paul Rhoads doesn't give a damn. Another year, another bowl, another few scalps. Paul Rhoads' ceiling at Iowa State is limited by mediocre recruiting, but in 2012 his Cyclones were as salty as ever, whipping undefeated TCU on the road and nearly taking out undefeated Kansas State at home. The offense is still iffy and without stars, but Rhoads had what was probably his best defense yet in 2012, one that continued to make plays after star linebacker Jake Knott was lost with injury after eight games. (Knott still earned all-conference honors despite missing four games.) Rhoads is still two games under .500 in four seasons in Ames, but unlike so many, he coaches without fear, and it never fails to refresh.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. Stay on schedule. Tulsa's run-heavy offense tends to struggle mightily when it falls behind schedule; the Golden Hurricane rank 91st in Passing Downs S&P+, while Iowa State's defense ranks 24th. Meanwhile, Tulsa's defense is at its peak when it can pin its ears back and go after the quarterback on second- or third-and-long, and Iowa State's offense very much struggles to stay out of such downs. Drives that fall into passing downs will end pretty quickly in this one.

2. Protect the ball. Iowa State did outgain Tulsa the first time around, but a good portion of ISU's 15-point scoring margin was determined by turnovers. Tulsa fumbled four times and was lucky to only lose one, but the Golden Hurricane still committed three turnovers worth 14.1 equivalent points (as defined here) while ISU committed just one for 4.6 points. A 9.5-point turnover margin turned a five-point game into a 15-pointer. Tulsa did fumble 26 times on the season, and Iowa State fumbled just 10 times. If Tulsa can protect the ball this time around, the Golden Hurricane will have a chance. Otherwise ... probably not.

3. What's changed? Since the first time these two teams met, Tulsa quarterback Cody Green has gotten a little more comfortable, Iowa State has changed quarterbacks (a few times), ISU lost linebacker Jake Knott and running back Shontrelle Johnson (18 carries for 120 yards the first time around). One would think the edge may have shifted toward Tulsa ever so slightly, but that will depend on how Green performs this time around and how junior backs James White and big Jeff Woody perform in Johnson's absence. Both had better per-carry averages than Johnson for the season as a whole, so perhaps that isn't an issue.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: ISU by 1.6.
Bill's Pick: ISU by 7. Tulsa is more likely to lose the turnover battle, and I still don't think Green can pass his way out of trouble against ISU. But if Watts and company go off on the ground, I guess that won't matter.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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