It finally happened Wave fans.
Justin McMillan and Jaetavian Toles connected on a scoring strike with 1:27 left in the final quarter on a play that was a year in the making. Instead of kicking the almost-certain extra point to tie, though, Willie Fritz let everyone know it was bowl or bust for the Wave this season by keeping the offense on the field. McMillan proceeded to hit tight end Charles Jones and the celebration ensued.
After coming literally inches short of a bowl bid on the final game of the season last year, the McMillan-to-Jones two-point pass ensured that the Wave would not suffer the same fate in 2018. Tulane’s 29-28 victory over the Midshipmen on Saturday punched their ticket to the postseason.
The Green Wave receiving corps played a huge role in making sure their seniors received a happy sendoff. Senior receivers like Jabril Clewis and Terren Encalade, who were playing their final game in Yulman Stadium, helped McMillan have a monster day against Navy. McMillan threw for 291 yards and three scores. Clewis racked up 83 yards and one touchdown on four catches while Encalade averaged seven yards per reception. It was the junior Darnell Mooney, though, that led Green Wave receivers with 135 yards and one score. All in all, not a bad day for the Wave’s passing game.
As for Navy, it was a disheartening way to end the game after fighting back from a 21-3 halftime deficit. It certainly appeared as though the Mids were going to be Tulane’s most recent source of heartbreak. Zach Abey completed seven of his 13 pass attempts for 167 yards and a touchdown. In fact Navy’s offense as a unit had two passing touchdowns and 204 yards through the air, uncharacteristic for the run-first Midshipmen. When all was said and done, though, Tulane did just enough to deliver the Mids their ninth loss of the season.
Both teams still have one more game on the docket. Navy gears up for the much-anticipated annual clash with Army while the Wave will await the announcement of their bowl pairing. Each will look to finish their season on a strong note.
The Good: It’s nice to see Tulane’s aerial attack, which has been off-and-on all year, finally see some sustained success at the end of the season. McMillan spread the wealth to six different receivers on Saturday and the passing game actually out-gained the rushing attack 291 yards-to-129; not a common sight for Willie Fritz’s option-oriented club but a welcome one nonetheless.
Navy certainly should hold their heads high after showing a tremendous ability to claw back in the face of a daunting deficit. Trailing by 18 at the half, the Mids scored that many unanswered in the third frame to knot it up and then tacked on another seven to actually take the lead late. That sort of resilience is nothing to scoff at and could serve them well against the Black Knights later this December.
The Bad: The Green Wave ground game could definitely see some improvement before their final game. Not that 129 yards and a score is necessarily bad, but this certainly isn’t the same unit that put up 300+ against South Florida and Memphis. Clearly, 300 yards isn’t a prerequisite for victory but it certainly would be nice for Wave fans to see again, especially in a bowl setting.
Navy was atrocious on third down in New Orleans. The Midshipmen converted just two of their 15 tries (13.3%) and left themselves in difficult situations. It should be noted, though, that this blemish was somewhat negated by their ability to reverse their fortunes on fourth where they had an 80% conversion ratio (4/5). Still, wouldn’t it just be nice for Navy fans to not worry about fourth down altogether?
The Ugly: Tulane just ended a five-year bowl drought so forgive us for omitting them from this section.
Navy’s normally dominant rushing attack was quiet, at least by their standards, against the Wave. The unit put up 117 yards and only one score. We say only because until Saturday, they had been averaging 304.7 yards and over three touchdowns per outing. Running the football is this team’s bread and butter and when they can’t do it successfully trouble usually follows; something to work on before squaring off with Army.
Navy’s Silver Lining: The best news Midshipmen fans can hear right now is that there’s still one game left. Sure, a three-win season is probably one that Navy and their following will want to forget in the long run, but if they can cap it off with a triumph over their most heated rival, then a lot of the pain that comes with nine losses will be wiped away. The season may be over soon but it could end on a very high note if Navy takes care of business on December 8.
Final Thoughts: Tulane and their fans have to be walking on air right now. Their first berth in a bowl game since 2013’s New Orleans Bowl isn’t just a reward for a postseason-worthy campaign but serves as a huge milestone for Fritz and his staff. No matter how their 13th contest of the year ends, this is a building block for the program moving forward. A bowl game will no longer be a dream in New Orleans, but now an expectation. Whatever the ensuing weeks bring, it certainly has been a season to remember for Tulane faithful.
Navy sits on the different side of the coin. Questions loom after a season that can finish at best 4-9; the worst the team has fared with Ken Niumatalolo as coach. 2018 also marks the first year since 2011 in which the Mids won’t be bowling. Interesting times lie ahead in Annapolis.