MEMPHIS, Tenn. - No. 23 Syracuse didn't let disappointment interfere with business Friday.
The Orangemen wanted to spend the holidays somewhere in Florida in a bowl named Orange, Carquest or Gator. Instead, they found themselves in Elvis Presley's hometown where they ran all over Houston in winning the Liberty Bowl 30-17.
"There were a lot of rumors going around that we weren't happy to go the Liberty Bowl," said Syracuse cornerback Rod Gadson. "But the people outside didn't really know what was going on. We were very excited."
Syracuse (9-3) finished the regular season sharing the Big East Conference title with Miami and Virginia Tech. A loss to Miami in the final game resulted in Syracuse's only invitation coming from the Liberty Bowl, which pays a minimum of $750,000 to each team.
A quarter of the team voted not to attend.
That attitude couldn't be seen Friday as Syracuse quickly took control with a running attack keyed by senior Malcolm Thomas, who ran for a career-high 201 yards on 24 carries and scored a touchdown.
"Early on, immediately after the Miami game, there was a question as to whether or not Syracuse wanted to be here," coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "I think our kids showed today they wanted to be here very, very badly."
Syracuse won its eighth straight bowl game in the past 10 years by playing keep-away from Houston (7-5). The Orangemen piled up 396 yards rushing and 472 yards total offense.
Pasqualoni said he wanted to throw more, but his running attack worked so well that McNabb threw only 10 times, completing four for 76 yards.
Thomas easily topped his regular-season best of 168 yards against Minnesota and became the first player to top 200 yards rushing in the Liberty Bowl since Colorado's Bobby Anderson ran for 254 against Alabama in 1969.
When Houston did get the ball, the Cougars didn't keep it long. The Orangemen, ranked 10th nationally in defense, allowed Houston 341 yards but held the Cougars well below their 31.3-point scoring average.
Receiver Charles West said Syracuse kept the Cougars guessing by disguising its defenses before settling in at the line of scrimmage too late for Houston to switch up.
Thomas set the tone on Syracuse's opening drive, carrying three times for 79 yards. McNabb capped the four-play drive with his first TD, a 1-yard keeper.
Houston tied it 7-7 when Chuck Clements who found Antowain Smith in the end zone on a 21-yard TD toss to end the Cougars' opening drive.
Syracuse took control by holding onto the ball for more than 11 minutes of the second quarter and for 9:20 in the third.
"We couldn't get the ball away from them in the second half," Houston coach Kim Helton said. "They held onto the ball, and they made the plays on third down. They had a great outside running game."
Thomas picked up 38 yards in a 13-play drive, all on the ground, as Syracuse went ahead to stay. Rob Konrad scored from 2 yards out.
Smith, who finished with 19 carries for 119 yards, pulled Houston to 16-14 as he broke up the middle 51 yards to set up his 3-yard plunge just before intermission.
Houston had a chance early in the third quarter to take the lead when the Cougars moved to the Syracuse 37 in eight plays. Rod Gadson ended the threat by intercepting Clements' pass in the end zone. Clements finished 14 of 28 for 217 yards.
Syracuse responded with a 16-play, 80-yard play that ate up nine minutes. McNabb scored his second touchdown, this from 2 yards behind a block from Thomas that gave Syracuse a 23-14 lead.
Houston came close twice more, settling for a 23-yard field goal from Sebastian Villareal with 10:50 to go and getting nothing when Clements overthrew Damion Johnson in the end zone on fourth-and-2.
The Liberty Bowl, sponsored by St. Jude Children's Hospital, was Houston's first postseason appearance since the 1988 Aloha Bowl.