TULSA — Now, it seems, Tulsa is just being mean, just going around beating up people.
And that’s OK. TU players recall all too well how just two short years ago, they were the ones being bullied around the football field.
Now, Tulsa is the bully.
“It’s basically a 180,” Golden Hurricane quarterback Dane Evans said after TU’s 45-24 victory over East Carolina on Saturday night at H.A. Chapman Stadium. “Two years ago, when we played ECU in the last game of the year, they came in here smacked us. I mean, we kind of returned the favor today.”
In the 2014 season finale, the Pirates came to 11th and Harvard and concluded the Bill Blankenship era with a resounding 49-31 victory. ECU outgained Tulsa 510 yards to 388, forced the TU offense into four three-and-out possessions, chased Evans into a 15-of-32, 199-yard, two-interception nightmare (his QBR was 27.6) and even ran back one of his picks for a touchdown.
TU finished the year 2-10 and Blankenship, a largely beloved alum and local high school coaching legend, was fired three days later.
Things are different now.
Saturday’s victory elevated the Golden Hurricane to 7-2 overall this season and 4-1 in American Athletic Conference play. Next week’s winner between TU and Navy in Annapolis, Maryland, has the inside track to the AAC Western Division crown, and probably would be a big favorite in the league title game.
Yeah, Tulsa has come that far in less than two seasons under Philip Montgomery.
“Just like we told y’all when Monty was hired, all we had to do was buy into what he’s teaching and we’ll see the results. That’s what we’ve been doing,” Evans said. “… We’d never beaten ECU and they beat us six straight times. We talked about that all week. We wanted to do something that anybody here has never done. No one on our staff or in our locker room has beaten ECU, and we finally did. That was a big goal for us.”
Tulsa was an 8 ½-point favorite and won by 21, but it wasn’t even that close.
TU led 14-0 two possessions in, had a 167-2 advantage in rushing yards at halftime and ended up with 342 yards on the ground to ECU’s 38. Running backs James Flanders and D’Angelo Brewer finished with 181 yards and 180 yards rushing, respectively. The Golden Hurricane averaged 6.3 yards per carry, while the defense — led by Trent Martin’s 10 tackles and Matt Linscott’s two key sacks (Jesse Brubaker also had two of Tulsa’s seven sacks) — held the Pirates to just 1.3 yards per carry.
“That,” said Linscott, “was pretty special.”
Evans was good, too, completing 22-of-38 for 274 yards with three touchdowns. Josh Atkinson caught 10 passes for 123 yards and two TDs, and Keevan Lucas caught seven for 91 and a score.
The victory touched off another raucous locker room dance party that included a special guest appearance by one Cannon Montgomery.
“After a win, we’ll be turnt up in there,” Flanders said. “And coach Monty, he’ll be dancing his tail off, too. This time, he had his son dancing with him, too, so that was pretty funny.”
“That’s what you work for every week,” Evans said. “You want that happy locker room, as opposed to the other one. Like James said, we like to get turnt up in there. So it’s fun. It’s fun to watch those guys get in there and dance. The ones that are good dancers, it’s really fun. The guys that aren’t good dancers, it’s even better.”
Montgomery gets in the center of the melee and shouts, “You got me?” The team responds with, “I got you!” After a few refrains, Montgomery gets his groove on. It’s becoming more and more regular now. After winning just five games the two previous seasons, TU finished 6-6 in Montgomery’s first year before losing 55-52 to Virginia Tech in the bowl game.
This season, Montgomery has hosted exactly seven dance parties.
“The locker room’s always great,” he said. “Wins in college football are hard to come by. Each and every one of ‘em are special, and you cannot take that for granted. So we’re gonna celebrate, and we celebrate at a very high level. So it’s fun. And everybody gets involved, from me all the way down to — tonight we even had some of the coaches kids in the middle of it.
“It’s a tremendous atmosphere. That’s a special place. You work all week and you gear up like this, and to be able to celebrate like that after a W, you’ve got to continue to keep that.”
Alas, the long-standing storyline at Tulsa is a bittersweet one.
TU has the smallest enrollment among FBS schools (3,473 undergrads). And too often the fan base is appallingly apathetic (only 17,557 came out Saturday to watch a team that, outside the 48-3 loss at Ohio State, has outscored its opponents 334-207 and should be in this week’s polls).
That means coaching salaries at Tulsa remain on the low end of the national scale. And that means anyone who wins at such a tiny school — think Steve Kragthorpe and Todd Graham — quickly will be hired away.
It’s a sad but immutable truth that even the truest of the True Blue have come to expect. In fact, many now embrace it.
Hey, it beats the alternative: bruises that these guys and their fans can still feel.
“I think it’s just us buying into to what the coaches want us to do,” Linscott said. “… It’s really been engrained into us, that relentlessness, just keep on fighting no matter what.”
“We’re trying to climb that mountain,” Montgomery said, “and get to the top.”
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.