For Tulane it was a win 16 years in the making.
The last time the Green Wave ended a season with a bowl victory was in 2002 when Chris Scelfo’s club came out triumphant in Hawaii Bowl. No Tulane team had won a postseason game since... at least until Saturday.
Willie Fritz’s Wave took a program-defining step when they dispatched their in-state rival Louisiana Ragin Cajuns 41-24 in the AutoNation Cure Bowl to claim the school’s fifth bowl victory; a surprisingly low number for a team that’s played football for well over a century.
Some might argue that it was Tulane’s most complete game of the year. The offense, headed by Justin McMillan, fired on all cylinders as they put up 482 total yards, notched five touchdowns and held the ball for over 40 minutes. Darius Bradwell, the game’s MVP, shined with a career-best 150 rushing yards and two scores. Seniors like receiver Terren Encalade (five catches, 93 yards and one score) got to put a nice and tidy bow on their career with one final win.
McMillan, who probably won’t have to pay for drinks in New Orleans anytime soon, had 72 rush yards of his own and two touchdowns (one passing, one running). And that Wave defense wasn’t too shabby either, authoring six sacks and nine tackles for loss. This team made it clear that simply appearing in a bowl game wasn’t satisfactory; they were there to win.
It all came at the demise of the Cajuns who, until Saturday, have also had a successful season. A trip to the Sun Belt title game and berth a bowl is quite the accomplishment for first-year coach Billy Napier. When all was said and done, though, this was Tulane’s day.
The normally explosive trio of backs Louisiana boasts couldn’t even muster up 100 yards between them all. Trey Ragas (40 yards on 10 carries) wasn’t even the team’s leading rusher and quarterback Andre Nunez only completed eight of his 17 passes for one touchdown.
2018’s Cure Bowl, a milestone for one team and a forgettable outing for the other, showed us glimpses of what these two clubs can be moving forward. And, while the scoreboard may have displayed a large disparity between the teams, there’s one thing both the fans in Lafayette and the Big Easy have in common; they should be excited for football in the future.
The Good: Billy Napier, after only one season as an FBS head coach, has the Cajuns on the doorstep of great things. This team was, after all, the Sun Belt runner-up and put together a seven-win season. Ragas is only a sophomore and there seems to be no limit to his ceiling after finishing as Louisiana’s top rusher this season (1,181 total yards). If the defense can mend some of it’s weak points, this is a team that could be scary in the years to come. Although the Cure Bowl was one to forget, Cajun fans shouldn’t hold their heads too low after a solid season.
For Tulane this had to be vindication for all the past heartache. We don’t need to talk about being a yard short a year ago anymore, no more bashing on stupid penalties and failures on third down. It all came together for the team in fine fashion this weekend. All the demons were exorcised. Every aspect of Fritz’s team was humming; it was the performance their fans have been waiting to see. This wasn’t the same club that dropped a head-scratcher to SMU or barely beat Tulsa. This was a program that appears ready to make a run at AAC title and people should take notice. It seems as though the days of being the conference’s doormat are over.
The Bad: You’d be hard-pressed to find any one thing that doomed Louisiana in this game but going 4/13 (30.8%) on third down certainly didn’t help. Give credit to Tulane’s stout defense, but the Cajuns were abysmal on third all afternoon. When you can’t move the chains against a team that’s playing some of its best ball, the result you get will be exactly what we saw in the Cure Bowl. Louisiana’s D was on the field for far too long.
If there’s a single thing we could label “bad” about Saturday for the Wave it had to be McMillan’s ugly interception right before half. A heave to the end zone in double coverage wasn’t the best choice and defensive back Bralen Trahan made that apparent. His 63-yard interception return to set up a Cajun field goal just before intermission was one of the Wave’s few low moments of the afternoon. The good news for Tulane, though, is that McMillan’s silly mistake was an anomaly and not the norm.
The Ugly: There was a conglomeration of smaller, isolated things that just made the ending to this season ugly for the Cajuns. Poor third down conversion percentage, getting gassed on defense and not even putting up 300 yards of offense made this December a forgettable one in Lafayette. Losing the conference championship and then the Cure Bowl was obviously not how Louisiana wanted to finish things up this year but hey, if anything it’s motivation going into 2019.
Tulane just won their first bowl game in over a decade and a half, there’s noting ugly here.
Final Thoughts: What a ride it’s been in the Big Easy. There are few games that you can point to and say “that one just reshaped our program” but this one did for Tulane. A bowl game appearance and victory is no longer a thing of dreams and aspirations for Wave fans, it really happened and now it’s an expectation. Anything less than a repeat performance next season will undoubtedly be seen as a setback in 2019. Fritz has this program back on the right path and next season you can bet the team will have its eyes on something bigger than a bowl; there’ll be an AAC title up for grabs and who’s to say these guys can’t snag it?