MEMPHIS, Tenn. - The Cyclones are well aware of Tulsa's three-headed monster in the backfield.
But it's an improved offensive line that has captured their attention.
Alex Singleton, Trey Watts and Ja'Terian Douglas each eclipsed 750 rushing yards this season as the Golden Hurricane boasted the nation's 11th best rushing attack at 240.2 yards per game. It's no coincidence that Tulsa (10-3) has seen vast improvement from its big guys up front as it prepares for a rematch with Iowa State in the 54th Annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl Monday.
"Their offensive line has gotten much, much better," said Iowa State defensive coordinator Wally Burnham. "That is the most impressive part about the Tulsa offense and the reason why their three running backs are having such a great year."
The Cyclones (6-6) limited the Golden Hurricane to 160 yards in the season opener, though Iowa State's defense will have to raise their level to match Tulsa's progress in the trenches.
Tulsa's unit allowed just nine sacks this season while paving the way for 3,100 yards on the ground.
Iowa State (6-6) vs. Tulsa (10-3)
Monday, 2:30 p.m.
At Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, Tenn.
"You see their improvement on film. Their rushing yards all season kept going up," said Cyclone defensive lineman Jake McDonough. "They have three great running backs and each has his own style. They can come in any minute and hurt you."
Speedsters Watts and Douglas each average more than six yards per carry, while Singleton, a bruising short-yardage specialist, has 21 touchdowns. Watts broke off a 77-yard scamper and rushed for 125 yards on 10 carries in the Cyclones' 38-23 victory in Ames, though Singleton was limited to just two yards on three carries.
The Cyclones can expect a heavier dose of Singleton and his two backfield mates though as the Golden Hurricane shifted its focus to the ground more as the season progressed after Cody Green fired 49 passes - his second highest output of the year - against Iowa State. At 6-foot-4 and 247 pounds, Green will also be a force to bring down when he calls his own number.
"They run the ball more and we're looking forward to a very physical game. Their quarterback (Cody Green) is starting to run more and they are utilizing his size," said Iowa State defensive end Roosevelt Maggitt.
"We have to be assignment sound and do a good job of tackling and everyone being accountable."
With the 2012 season opening victory over Tulsa way back in the rearview mirror, Monday's tilt has the feel of a completely different opponent for the Cyclones.
"It kind of feels like a rematch but it kind of feels like a different team. They got better throughout the season," said Maggitt.
"We're scouting them as a physical Big 12 team."
The distant feeling is mutual for Tulsa.
"The first game feels like forever ago," said Tulsa linebacker DeAundre Brown.
"We were just off point, we weren't together, but it was our first game. In first games, you've got some guys just learning to get their feet wet before finally jumping into the pool."
Both teams may find their feet wet Monday with a 30 percent chance of rain.
Going against Steele Jantz in September, Tulsa must prepare for freshman Sam Richardson, who is making his second start under center, after winning the job with a 250-yard, four touchdown effort against Kansas. Though the Golden Hurricane don't feel they'll need to make any major adjustments.
"Their offense hasn't changed a whole lot. We've changed a little bit," said Tulsa defensive coordinator Brent Guy.
"They are doing a few things differently, like one play they are running with the quarterback that's different than the first time we played them. Other than that, it's pretty much the same offense.
While defeating any team twice in the same year can be a tall task, the Cyclones needn't look any further for inspiration than their opponent across the line. The Golden Hurricane accomplished the feat against Central Florida in a three-week span including a 23-21 victory Nov. 17 and a 33-27 Conference USA title game victory in overtime Dec. 1.
Though the Cyclones - particularly the seniors, don't need any extra motivation as they look to add a more satisfying final chapter to the season after falling to Rutgers in last year's Pinstripe Bowl.
"I'm trying to enjoy this game and get one last victory as a Cyclone," said Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein.
"This is a very important game, especially for the senior class to go out winners."