MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP)—Tulsa made a remarkable comeback this season. Fittingly, the Golden Hurricane used a timely rally to win their biggest game of the year.
Paul Smith ran 4 yards for the winning touchdown with 2:55 to play, and Tulsa had two key interceptions in its 31-24 victory over Fresno State on Saturday in the Liberty Bowl.
“Today was really a microcosm of our season,” coach Steve Kragthorpe said.
Smith, the game’s MVP, was 18-of-27 for 234 yards with a 54-yard touchdown pass to Ashlan Davis. But he made his biggest play on the ground, scrambling around three defenders and into the end zone to secure Tulsa’s first bowl victory in 14 years.
“I just decided I didn’t want to force (a pass) in there,” Smith said. “I’ve done that a lot when I was younger, and it always goes 99 yards the other way. So I just wanted to tuck it down and try to make a play.”
The Golden Hurricane forced a pair of turnovers from the Bulldogs’ Paul Pinegar in clinching their seventh win in eight games to close the season.
First, defensive back Anthony Germany set up Tulsa’s decisive drive by picking off Pinegar’s pass with just under 7 minutes remaining.
“He threw it a little flatter than usual, and I just went up and snagged it,” Germany said.
Fresno State then had one final chance to force overtime, and Pinegar drove the Bulldogs into Tulsa territory before his pass toward the sideline was picked off by linebacker Nelson Coleman at the 30.
The Golden Hurricane (9-4) then ran out the clock and celebrated their first bowl victory since they beat San Diego State in the Freedom Bowl in 1991.
The victory capped a tremendous turnaround under Kragthorpe, who before the 2003 season took over a Tulsa program that was coming off 11 straight losing seasons and led it to two bowls in three years.
“I’ve got far too much credit for what’s taken place,” Kragthorpe said. “What you see on Saturday, as a fan … I’m fortunate enough as a coach to see Monday through Friday.”
The Golden Hurricane overcame low expectations this season to claim an unlikely Conference USA championship in their first year in the league, then beat a Fresno State team that gave top-ranked Southern California fits and once was ranked 16th in the nation before the Bulldogs slid into a late-season slump.
“It was sort of the story of our season down the stretch,” Fresno State coach Pat Hill said.
Tulsa had to come from behind to beat its former WAC rival, scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Fresno State took a 24-17 lead on Pinegar’s 21-yard touchdown pass to Joe Fernandez on the second play of the quarter.
The Golden Hurricane tied it at 24 two possessions later when Smith found Davis streaking behind the secondary for a 54-yard TD pass.
“I was going through my reads, dropped back and I just saw him pop open,” Smith said. “I’ve missed him this year quite a few times, so I wanted to put it out there and he went and got it.”
Tarrion Adams led Tulsa with 102 yards rushing, but most of that came on a 63-yard touchdown burst in the second quarter. That scoring run gave Tulsa its first lead at 14-7 and came about 4 minutes after teammate Uril Parrish tied it by running 22 yards for the Golden Hurricane’s first touchdown.
Pinegar finished 19-of-30 passing for 213 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, while Wendell Mathis had 117 yards rushing and his WAC-best 15th rushing touchdown of the season for Fresno State (8-5), which closed a once-promising year with four straight losses after beating Boise State on Nov. 10.
The closer-than-expected loss to the top-ranked Trojans came nine days later.
“Until Nov. 19, it went very well. At the end, it didn’t go very well,” Hill said. “We had a very, very good season going and we didn’t finish the way we wanted to. But I’m not going to take anything away from this football team. We played at a very high level in many games this year, and it was never from lack of effort.”
Pinegar also was denied in his attempt to become the first quarterback to go 4-0 as a starter in bowl games.
The teams traded field goals in the second and third quarters, with Brad DeVault kicking a 41-yarder on the final play of the first half to give Tulsa a 17-14 halftime lead. Fresno State tied it at 17 on Kyle Zimmerman’s 27-yard field goal early in the third.
Fresno State backup Bryson Sumlin had a 25-yard TD run late in the first half.
The game was sponsored by AutoZone.