How does Tulsa bounce back from a tough loss?
Tulsa had it. An upset bid against potential playoff bound Oklahoma State fell short when the Golden Hurricane beat themselves. The 16-7 loss stung a little extra considering how rough the last few years were for this team, but there's still reason to believe in this team after starting the year 0-1. However, that makes this week's game even more important to avoid a two loss start. Arkansas State's a good team coming off a Big 12 upset of Kansas State, and Tulsa's not going to scare them.
Zach Smith has already taken Tulsa's offense to a new level. Dane Evans' departure started the spiral downwards for the quarterback position. Luke Skipper and Chad President took turns in 2017, and Seth Boomer joined the group in 2018. None of them played consistent enough, wasting talent at receiver and forcing Shamari Brooks, D'Angelo Brewer, and Corey Taylor II to carry a heavy load. Tulsa didn't have a passer throw for over 1,400 yards in a season in those two years. Enter Smith.
In his first year as the quarterback, Smith threw for over 3,200 yards and 19 touchdowns (the other three combined for 19 touchdowns in the two previous seasons). He's the reason the offense had balance for the first time since Evans, and he's the reason the Golden Hurricane can get back on track this weekend. The throws he made on Saturday, including the one above, were next level throws that can get him drafted. As long as he's given enough time to get a throw off, he's accurate and dangerous, and he also has the weapons around him to do damage.
Oklahoma State's defense returned a ton of experience, some that will play in the NFL eventually. We knew there would be some struggles, but the defense they face this week doesn't present the same level of difficulty. Even with the loss of Shamari Brooks, which we learned about right before last week's game, and Corey Taylor II not being a factor, the running game still found ways to move the ball.
Texas A&M transfer Deneric Prince inserted himself as the go-to back for Tulsa this weekend, including the powerful run above. You can already see the power in his legs. The highlight play should have ended in a touchdown, but instead ended in a missed field goal. However, it's just another example of why fans should be optimistic for this weekend. They didn't finish, but they have the ability to do so.
Here's the thing, Tulsa's trying to improve on a 4-8 season. In fact, they've only won nine games over the last three years, putting Philip Montgomery on the hot seat. A number of close losses last year figured to translate into wins this season, and they just need to get out of their own way. Penalties and missed assignments killed them in the fourth quarter against the Cowboys, but those are fixable mistakes. If they don't beat themselves, Tulsa can compete with the best of them. Even on defense.
My biggest concern for Tulsa coming into this year was on the defensive side of the ball. With limited starters returning, I had no idea what to expect. They've already exceeded expectations. Tulsa held an Oklahoma State offense in check for the entire game. This is one of the most explosive offenses in all of college football, one that averaged 32.5 points with 453.9 yards per game in 2019. It's also an offense that returned nearly every starter, including two of the most explosive players in college football in running back Chuba Hubbard and wide receiver Tylan Wallace.
Tulsa held that same offense to 16 points, 179 yards passing and 147 yards rushing (326 total). Granted, Cowboys quarterback Spencer Sanders went down with an injury, but the Golden Hurricane won the battle in the trenches early and often where Sanders going down didn't play as much of a role as the defense winning their matchups. Hubbard had nowhere to run and Wallace couldn't get open until late in the game. They'll be test through the air again with the Red Wolves, and they know what they need to do to win this time.
Allie Green and the secondary don't get to rest. Jonathan Adams and the Arkansas State Red Wolves can move the ball through the air, and we saw what Adams could do last week.
Green's a big, physical corner who went toe to toe with one of the best in the country, and his reward is getting another one. Adams is an athletic player capable of making highlight reel catches, but Green's physical play should help stifle Adams' impact. That leaves Roshauud Paul and Dahu Green for the other Golden Hurricane defensive backs to cover. Green followed Wallace all around the field Saturday, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him do the same with Adams. If they take away the passing game, they'll be in great hands.
We've gone this far without mentioning Zaven Collins, which seems like a crime. Collins was another one of the few starters returning, and he showed why he's on of the best players in the AAC. Collins recorded six tackles Saturday, and led the team with four tackles for loss. We knew that he'd play well, but the question remained who would join him, which we also got an answer for when Grant Sawyer took off.
Collins' fellow linebacker recorded seven tackles with 3.5 coming for loss, and Sawyer did it by getting off blocks, beating blockers to his spot, and timing blitzes well. A disruptive force like that take the pressure off Collins to produce and gives Tulsa another presence in the front seven. Arkansas State has yet to experience a defense that's lived in their backfield, and Tulsa certainly did that against the Cowboys. In their two games so far, Arkansas State's opponents have produced five tackles for loss and three sacks in each game. Tulsa produced 14 tackles for loss and six sacks against Oklahoma State alone. Not only will that help Tulsa get the ball back to their offense, but it's going to disrupt the flow for the Red Wolves offense.
Tulsa's loss on Saturday was unfortunate. The had a Power 5 upset almost locked up, but got in their own way. Yet there's still a ton of reason to be excited about where this teams going despite the mistakes. Smith and the offense have something great going, and the defense has already proved it can be a major factor against any offense they face. The wins will come, as long as there's discipline that goes with it. Montgomery's seat will cool as long as those mistakes are fixed. From there, this becomes an extremely dangerous team.