Calhoun: Five predictions for the Liberty Bowl


Photo: Adam Ring/Iowa State Daily

ISU quarterback Sam Richardson attempts a pass during the game against the West Virginia Mountaineers on Friday, Nov. 23, at Jack Trice Stadium. The Mountaineers won the game 31-24. Richardson finished the game with 162 yards passing and three touchdowns. Richardson has thrown seven touchdowns and no interceptions in the last two games.

Jake Calhoun

The waiting truly is the hardest part.

For Cyclone fans, the wait between now and the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31 seems like an eternity. In that time, the Cyclones (6-6, 3-6 Big 12) have gotten in extra practices leading up to their showdown against Tulsa for a rematch of a season-opening 38-23 victory.

“As a coaching staff and as a football team, we knew we were in for a huge battle in that opening game,” said ISU coach Paul Rhoads. “To come out of it successful, we were very fortunate, and we were very excited about that win.”

Both teams have played a full season since their encounter more than three months ago, leaving many to question whether a similar outcome will take place this time around.

1. Sam Richardson will score three touchdowns as the Cyclones’ starting quarterback.

Whether it be through the air or on the ground, Richardson has proven to be a paydirt-pushing machine. In his first bout of significant playing time, the redshirt freshman ran for one touchdown and threw for four in the Cyclones’ 51-23 victory against Kansas.

Even though his novice showed the following week in the regular season finale against West Virginia, Rhoads said Richardson has come a long way since then.

“There was one play in that West Virginia game where [Richardson] picked up the first down with a physical run, and he got up and he showed some of that emotion that lends itself to being assertive with your teammates,” Rhoads said.

The main criticism of Richardson leading up to the KU game was that he was not assertive enough to be handed the reins as No. 1 quarterback. However, Rhoads said he has seen more assertiveness and more confidence with the way Richardson has practiced ever since he began playing more with the first-team offense.

With that said, look for Richardson to have a big game in leading the offensive production for the Cyclones.

2. The ISU run defense will not stop Tulsa’s rushing attack this time.

The old adage that it’s tough to beat a team twice cannot be neglected in this case.

Since amassing just 160 yards rushing against Iowa State on Sept. 1, Tulsa has rushed for 240 yards per game — 11th-best among FBS teams.

“[Defending] the run is always a challenge, no matter who you play,” said defensive end Rony Nelson. “Our defense is ‘stop the run first and make them pass,’ so that’s what [we’re going to] keep on with the scheme.”

Tulsa’s leading rusher Trey Watts, who amassed 959 rushing yards with 6.0 yards per carry this season, will likely cause a good chunk of the damage.

Ja’Terian Douglas and Alex Singleton will round out the trifecta of explosive running backs for the Golden Hurricane (10-3, 7-1 C-USA). Douglas rushed for 857 yards at 6.6 yards per carry and Singleton tallied 765 rushing yards of his own while leading the team in rushing touchdowns with 21.

“They’re running downhill a lot better than when they played us,” said linebacker Jeremiah George. “They had an explosive play for like 77 yards and that’s some of the things that they can do very, very well.”

The main thing that will hurt Iowa State is the absence of Jake Knott, who hung up his cleats for his collegiate career after receiving season-ending shoulder surgery in early November.

Here’s the eye-popping stat that pretty much makes this prediction a lock: In the eight games that Knott played, the defense allowed 1,081 rushing yards (135.13 per game); in the four games without Knott, the defense allowed 901 rushing yards (225.25 per game).

Folks, that’s almost 100 more rushing yards allowed without Knott. They may not admit it, but the TU offensive coaching staff is pretty happy that Knott won’t be lining up against its unit.

3. The ISU running game will struggle.

Speaking of the running game, Iowa State’s will most likely struggle with the absence of Shontrelle Johnson at running back.

Johnson, the team’s leading rusher with 504 yards on the season, sustained an ACL tear and will undergo a six-month rehab process to get him back on the field next season.

Another concern is that James White has sat out of the past few practices with a head injury. Even though Rhoads said White will be good to go in time for the bowl game, his missed time in practice may hurt him in terms of preparation.

Tulsa’s rushing defense is also incredibly stingy, having given up 121.23 yards per game — 17th-best among FBS teams.

Richardson will gain a good chunk of the rushing yardage alongside Jeff Woody and DeVondrick Nealy, but not having its two main running backs will only hurt a team that has had trouble establishing its ground game this season.

4. TU quarterback Cody Green will struggle.

This is a prediction that is somewhat by default with the projected success of the TU ground game.

Green had a mediocre performance against Iowa State earlier this season, going 23-of-49 in pass completions for 198 yards while throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Even though Green did lead the Golden Hurricane to a Conference USA title, he’s prone to making mistakes. With that said, having Durrell Givens and Jansen Watson returning to the secondary will only fluster Green in the moments that Tulsa does decide to pass.

Green’s performance will not impact the outcome as much as some may think, so don’t look for anything miraculous from him.

5. Iowa State wins 24-21 in a closely contested game.

Yes, this game was pretty much a blowout when these two teams first met on Sept. 1.

But with the improvement of the TU running backs and the absence of Knott on the ISU defense, the scales will shift more equally.

Richardson’s performance will be the difference-maker in this one. So far, he has thrown seven touchdown passes without throwing an interception and has been lauded as one of the smartest quarterbacks with which the coaching staff has ever worked.

Look for Richardson’s consistency to put the Cyclones on top for their second bowl victory in three appearances.

Jake Calhoun is a senior in journalism from Urbandale, Iowa.