What a time to be a football fan in New Orleans.
The Saints are ripping through the NFL like nobody’s business and seem to be well on their way to a potential Super Bowl appearance. But for the first time in what feels like ages it isn’t just the Big Easy’s professional club that is making noise.
The Tulane Green Wave are finally relevant in the month of December, or at least they will be. After a season that got off to a rocky start to say the least, head coach Willie Fritz has the Wave in the bowl picture; a place the program hasn’t been since the Curtis Johnson days. Just for some perspective, Tulane was still a member of C-USA and the AAC was just getting its feet wet. Yeah… it’s been a while.
The Green Wave’s road back to a bowl game was anything but easy and straightforward. Five years of being left on the outside looking in via some of the most excruciating ways imaginable have made this year’s return to college football’s postseason all the more sweeter for the team and their fans.
This Sunday Tulane will know who their final opponent of the 2018 campaign is and you can bet that Fritz’s 6-6 club will be ready. In the meantime, though, let’s take a look back at exactly how they got here. It took the signings of valuable transfers, a mid-season quarterback change and one gutsy coaching call in the waning moments of the season but when the dust settled, the Wave found themselves in their 13th ever bowl game.
Ugly déjà vu right off the bat
It was no secret that one of Tulane’s biggest hurdles a year ago was their inability to win close games. In 2017, four of their seven losses came by a combined 12 points including the season finale against SMU when Jonathan Banks’ last second dive to the goal line came up inches shy (according to the official). As everyone knows, that controversial defeat ended up costing them a trip to a bowl game. So winning those close contests was certainly a point of emphasis for the club in the offseason. However, had you watched the first third of their games, you’d never know it.
In the season opener against Wake Forest, Tulane was again slapped in the face by their failures in tight games. Merek Glover connected on a 39-yard field goal late to knot things up at 17 and it seemed as though the Wave finally had put to bed those demons. With the way they had been moving the ball on offense, of course they felt confident about their ability to do so from the 25-yard line overtime.
The Deacs, though, had different plans. They forced the Wave into a fourth and a country mile situation in OT and, once they got the ball back for themselves, wasted no time finding the end zone. You could almost feel the agony of letting another narrow game slip away wash over Tulane fans in Yulman that night. This was a problem that had supposedly been addressed and yet the year’s first game looked painfully familiar.
After thumping the FCS’s Nicholls State Colonels, the Green Wave again suffered another close defeat. In the team’s first road outing, UAB got the best of Tulane by a mere touchdown. Seeing as the Blazers are about to play in their first ever C-USA championship, maybe this isn’t one to necessarily fret about too much . That being said, the Wave turned the ball over three times and didn’t even have possession for 24 minutes but still had ample opportunity to escape Birmingham with a win.
With the game tied in the final stages, UAB quarterback A.J. Erdely found tight end Logan Scott for a 14-yard touchdown. Tulane was unable to do anything with their remaining two minutes and just like that the club lost its second one-score game of the year. It was beginning to appear that letting close contests get away was not simply a bad habit but part of the Wave’s DNA. At this point a bowl was the furthest thing from the minds of most. Tulane just wanted to win one of these dogfights and not be left on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
Trying to find an identity
The 1-3 start was, to put it mildly, extremely disheartening. The only loss that was forgivable was the expected thrashing delivered by Ohio State. With the first four games in the books, a bowl berth seemed like a far-fetched dream. Yours truly had all but given up on any chance of covering postseason ball at season’s end. With opponents like Memphis, South Florida and Houston still on the slate it didn’t look good for a team that could only afford to lose three more.
When Memphis came to town on the last Friday of September, not many were expecting the performance Tulane put up. Why would they? The Tigers were (and still are) an offensive force to be reckoned with. Darrell Henderson is one of the nation’s best running backs and quarterback Brady White had already tossed 12 touchdowns coming in. On paper it seemed as though the Green Wave was about to suffer its fourth loss in an ugly way.
Tulane’s defense, though, made Memphis look like anything but a team that is ready to compete in its second consecutive AAC title game. White got sacked seven times by the Wave’s front line and the Tigers were only able to muster up 24 points, their second lowest total of the season.
It was also in this game that we were reaffirmed just how smart the transfer signing of Corey Dauphine was. The former Texas Tech running back had gashed Nicholls earlier in the year but left no doubt about his position as an anchor in the running game versus the Tigers. Dauphine broke the chalk twice and racked up 87 hard-fought yards, averaging just over seven per carry. His track-worthy speed paired with fellow back Darius Bradwell’s monster night of 143 yards and two touchdowns was enough to oust Memphis in a way that made those around the American take notice.
The upset of the Tigers had many of us, including myself, scratching our heads about just who this Tulane squad actually was. Were they a real contender or were they merely putting on the guise of a team who could compete in the AAC West?
The answer to that question seemed to be the latter when the Bearcats trounced the Wave a week later in Cincinnati. The same defense that held Memphis to under 25 points surrendered 37 to the ‘Cats. Again, things were looking ugly in NOLA and now at 2-4 heading into the bye week Tulane knew they needed to win four of their remaining six games if they didn’t want to spend another December on their couches.
That mission didn’t get off to a good start when SMU came into town following the week off. The Mustangs took advantage of Green Wave mistakes. SMU recovered two fumbles and picked off Jonathan Banks once which hurt yes, but the backbreaker was a Ben Hicks-to-James Proche 67-yard scoring bomb with 1:15 left. Tulane’s fifth loss was perhaps the season’s ugliest; they were a far cry from the club that dismantled the Tigers not even a month prior.
After an anticipated victory over lowly Tulsa, the Wave rolled into Tampa for a duel with South Florida. The Bulls were coming off their first loss of the season and were wanting to do anything to prove that they were not underrated as so many were claiming. USF had only lost to Houston, after all, and were still 7-1. They had every right to resent being labeled as pretenders at this juncture of the year. With an angry group waiting for them, it again looked as if Tulane would be in for a long afternoon.
Just when everyone was ready to stick a fork in them, though, the Wave did what they were best at for much of the year; confusing everyone who followed them. Against the disgruntled Bulls, Tulane rushed for a season-high 368 yards and five touchdowns. The defense authored three turnovers and when all was said and done, the Green Wave decidedly came out on top 41-15.
In hindsight we’d be hard-pressed to call this one an upset seeing as USF went on to lose their remaining four regular season contests and finish just one victory better than Tulane. Still, at the time it felt almost as big as the Memphis shocker. It wasn’t even two weeks before that the Bulls had cracked the top 25 and now this? Tulane was one of the American’s biggest enigmas heading into the final portion of the season.
The two calls that (may have) saved Fritz’s job
If you were to point to one thing that set Tulane on the bowl path early on, it had to be Fritz’s decision to give transfer-quarterback Justin McMillan the nod over Banks before the bout with Tulsa. Now, let’s not get this misconstrued; Banks did not perform poorly and lose the job. McMillan simply was given a chance and won it.
When Fritz swapped the two QBs in late October, Banks had already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark and had tossed five touchdowns with only two interceptions. He had racked up another 120 rush yards and two more touchdowns on the ground. It was not a matter of ugly play but more so a matter of needing a change in scenery. Something had to be shaken up or Tulane would be an open book offensively for the rest of the year.
It was a decision that played out nearly to perfection down the stretch. With the former LSU Tiger at the helm, Tulane went on to win four of its remaining five games. McMillan accounted for 10 touchdowns after being passed the baton (six passing and four rushing). He threw for 963 yards and ran for another 207 during this span.
After pacing Tulane in their surprising blowout of USF, McMillan had a field day with the ECU defense. His 372 yards through the air were a career best as were his 12 completions and three touchdown passes. He would go on to accumulate 147 more yards against Houston and 291 versus Navy. With all respect to Banks, McMillan was clearly the right choice as the season wound down. His dual-threat playmaking ability kept defenses on their toes enough to allow the Wave to be creative on offense and the wins followed.
Aside from the choice to name McMillan the guy, there is another, more isolated call that directly led to Tulane’s long-awaited return trip to a bowl game. Last Saturday the club found itself in a terrifyingly-similar position as it did a season ago. It was the worst kind of déjà vu but fortunately for Tulane it had the best kind of resolution.
With time winding down on the game and the season the Wave needed something big… something monumental… to happen. Navy had rallied from an 18-point deficit in the second half to take a late 28-21 lead. Mere minutes stood between the Midshipmen and their fourth win of the season. A huge play was needed and, thanks to No. 12, one was delivered.
McMillan found receiver Jaetavian Toles on a crossing route over the middle with 1:27 remaining. Toles cut it back to the outside, twisted away from a Navy defender and coasted into the end zone. It was the big play the doctor ordered for sure, but it couldn’t hold a candle to what was about to ensue.
The flashbacks of how last year’s season ended against SMU had to have flashed in Fritz’s mind as he made the call following Toles’ score. This team has had one goal all season long and Fritz wasn’t about to leave that goal up to fate in overtime. A bowl game was Tulane’s for the taking and he made clear that they would indeed take it.
The offense was commanded to stay on the field for a two-point try. There was no hesitation. It was the biggest do-or-die moment of the year and, with the chips down, trailing by one, McMillan made his coach’s two big decisions pay off in one play.
He took the snap and rolled to his left as the pressure from the Midshipmen defenders bore down on him. With a Navy pass rush squarely in his face, McMillan heaved it up across his body and to the other side of the end zone. There, Charles Jones, playing in his final home game, was waiting for the pass. The crowd erupted as the senior tight end secured the ball and a spot in this year’s bowl season.
As is tradition after a big win, Fritz received the Gatorade bath from his players. Yulman Stadium was in a frenzy. A month prior it didn’t seem like a bowl appearance was in the cards. Not at 2-5 with five remaining. This bowl berth was not by chance, it took perseverance in the face of adversity. That two-point try embodied what this 2018 Tulane team is all about; not defying the odds but hijacking them into their favor. Tulane would not let some overtime coin toss determine their fate. One way or another, they were going into December on their own terms.
The Green Wave will have to wait until Sunday to know who and where they will play. Many projections see Tulane landing a spot in the Cherry Bowl (formerly the Boca Raton Bowl). If selected for this one, the Wave would face a C-USA foe per the game’s conference tie-ins. However, there are six other bowl games in which the American has affiliation with and with seven AAC teams making the cut, all of the following slots will need to be filled:
Armed Forces Bowl v. Big 12 opponent
Birmingham Bowl v. SEC opponent
Cherry Bowl v. C-USA opponent
Cure Bowl v. Sun Belt opponent
Frisco Bowl v. at-large opponent
Gasparillia Bowl v. C-USA opponent
Military Bowl v. ACC opponent