TULSA — For the University of Tulsa’s 18 seniors, Friday was perfect.
A perfect home record. A perfect ending. And a perfect microcosm of their college football careers.
After falling behind by as many as 17, the Golden Hurricane scored a dramatic 40-37 overtime victory over Cincinnati on Friday night at H.A. Chapman Stadium. In the final game of the regular season, TU didn’t lead until the final play of overtime.
Quarterback Dane Evans summed it up as a representation of his own TU career, but really, it stood for the whole senior class.
“Didn’t start the best,” Evans said, “but we never gave up, never gave up, just kept fighting, putting our nose down and just working. We didn’t lead until the last play, but that’s why you gotta play every play.”
Just two years after going 2-10 and firing Bill Blankenship, TU is 9-3 (6-2 in American Athletic Conference play, 6-0 at home this season) and steamrolling toward a nice bowl game.
James Flanders rushed 39 times for 197 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning score in OT.
“I feel like I’ve been here forever,” Flanders said, his face illuminated with a grin of satisfied exhaustion.
Tulsa trailed 24-7 early in the second quarter and it looked worse than that. Evans threw two interceptions, Flanders lost a fumble, and the Bearcats (4-8, 1-7) scored on touchdown passes of 38, 29 and 82 yards (the middle one was a toss from wideout Tyler Cogswell to quarterback Hayden Moore after Moore’s offensive line laid down en masse, then got up and led him to the end zone untouched). Moore later threw a 70-yard TD and finished with 371 yards passing.
“We played as a football team about as bad as you could in the first half,” TU coach Philip Montgomery said. “Didn’t even look like the same football team we were all year.”
That’s accurate. Tulsa had won its first five home games this season by an average score of 48-24, and Cincinnati, though loaded with athletic talent, had suffered seven double-digit AAC losses. The whole of Chapman Stadium — a disappointing crowd of 18,550 on a perfect night for football — was in shock.
It was 14-0 just 7 ½ minutes in. That’s when Lucas — already a prolific purveyor of ridiculous circus catches — delivered a career highlight, a surreal, full-extension, one-handed grab that gained 47 yards and kick-started the Tulsa offense.
“I don’t know that I’ve seen a better catch than that, and I’ve been around some really good receivers that are playing in the (National Football) League right now,” Montgomery said. “If that’s not the No. 1 play on SportsCenter, I don’t know … it was an undescribable, spectacular play.”
“I gotta go back and see that one. That felt pretty good,” said Lucas, who finished with 120 yards on eight receptions. “Once I was able to stick my hand out, it stuck like glue.”
“Incredible,” said Evans. “That kid’s special. That’s a tough catch. It’s tough for pro receivers. Kid’s a monster.”
Flanders carried four straight times to put TU on the board, but Cincinnati answered with a field goal and then the 82-yard bomb from Moore to a wide-open Devin Gray and a 24-7 Bearcats lead.
And on his next play, Evans threw his second interception to UC’s Mike Tyson.
At that point, the game inexplicably changed.
Tulsa’s defense forced two punts, and the offense marched downfield for another touchdown, this one another throw from Evans and another acrobatic snag by Lucas, who wrested the ball away from a Cincy defender as they slammed into the wall.
Evans was 6-of-7 for 53 yards on the drive. It was quick, it was efficient, and it gave Evans all the confidence he needed to finish strong.
“That drive right before half,” Mongtomery said, “I think set us up for what happened in the second half.”
Tulsa had 175 yards total offense before that drive started, 436 after.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati managed just a touchdown in the third quarter and a field goal in the fourth.
Josh Pasley’s field goal, however, came with 5:57 to play and rebuilt the Bearcats’ lead to 34-24.
Game over, right?
Not for Tulsa, a team that is now a perfect 3-0 in overtime games this season.
“We had ‘em right where we want ‘em the whole time, right?” said linebacker Trent Martin. “We never doubted we could win the game.
“Just keep plugging away, one play at a time.”
That included the passing game (Evans finished 25-of-38 for 305 yards and three TDs and Josh Atkinson caught six passes for 96 yards) and the run game (in addition to Flanders’ huge night, D’Angelo Brewer ran for 99 yards on 21 carries). TU rushed for 306 yards and passed for 305.
Tulsa went 74 yards on 11 plays in just 2:42 (Evans found Chris Minter on a 5-yard TD pass) to cut it to 34-31, and then forced a punt and went 83 yards on nine plays in just 1:19 for Redford Jones’ 22-yard field goal to tie it on the final play of regulation. (Jones’ first field goal, a 24-yarder on the first play of the fourth quarter, slammed off the left upright, then ricocheted into the right upright and somehow still deflected in.)
TU won the toss, and after forcing a field goal on Cincinnati’s opening possession of overtime, Evans connected with Josh Atkinson for a 21-yard gain on third-and-10 from the 25. Flanders then plowed in for the game-winning touchdown, sprinted to the sideline and threw the ball into the stands as pandemonium ensued.
“I turned right to the sideline, and I’ll never forget that image in my head,” Evans said. “All the fans’ hands up, and I remember Jesse (Brubaker, a TU defensive end) as he was screaming at me, I thought he was gonna tackle me, and everybody just storming the field. That’s what you work for. That’s why we do what we do in the summer and the spring and why we dedicate so much of our time, for games like that.”
For a class that went 5-19 in their first two years, to have an opportunity to win 10 games this season is remarkable. And consider the losses: at No. 2 Ohio State, and controversial endings at No. 20 Houston and No. 25 Navy.
Yes, these were Blankenship’s players. But this is Montgomery’s team.
“That’s been the biggest thing that we as a team have been able to overcome, that culture change you have to have within your program to understand it’s not always gonna go right, you’re not always gonna get the breaks or get the calls, but you have to find a way to win.
“We’re never gonna be out of a game. … These guys have continually stepped up, from the very first game I coached here, and founds ways to win.”
Lucas called his first two years at TU “the dark times, you know, 5-19, I’ll never forget that,” said Lucas, who missed most of last year with a severe knee injury. “I mean, 5-19, there’s no hiding from that. That’s exactly what it was. We experienced that. Those losses, all the work that we put in and still losing, I remember those tough losses. I feel like, really, the seniors on the team remember those losses too.
“It’s just the work, and the guys we have. We have lot of guys that, adversity is kind of what we live in. Us being Tulsa too, I feel like that adversity is something we (thrive) in. We do better with our backs against the wall, so to speak.”
“For us,” said Montgomery, “I’ve said this from day one, we’re fighting for respect in our state, we’re fighting for respect in our conference, and you can put all the odds up against us as a university and as a football team, and I can promise you, we’re gonna keep coming out and keep swinging.”
Friday’s satisfaction, which roiled into a raucous celebration on the field, was rooted deeply in “the dark times.”
“A lot of emotions tonight,” said Martin. “I was just so happy, so proud to be part of this team. That win, that game really embodies who we are as a team.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.