A five-year dream (officially) came to fruition for the Tulane Green Wave last Sunday. In the midst of the craziness that was the announcement of this year’s College Football Playoff participants, it was declared that Tulane would indeed take part in this December’s bowl action.
It may not come with the prestige of the New Year’s Six, but the 2018 AutoNation Cure Bowl pits the Wave against a familiar foe: the Louisiana Ragin Cajuns. These are the guys that offed Tulane in the New Orleans Bowl back in 2013, the last time the Green Wave were in a postseason contest. While the Wave was eagerly waiting to hear their name called last weekend, though, the Cajuns were still playing. Bowl games were the furthest thing from their minds while competing in the inaugural Sun Belt title game.
Louisiana and Tulane are two clubs that had been used to seeing a lot of each other in the ‘80s and ‘90s but haven’t got together nearly as often after the turn of the century. In fact, since 2000, the schools have only had three in-season meetings with their 2013 bowl game being the extra fourth. On December 15, however, they will renew their rivalry and, in doing so, make the most recent edition of the Cure Bowl a Bayou clash through and through.
Let’s get acquainted with the teams that are just over 130 miles apart.
Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
Hailing from Lafayette, the Cajuns just wrapped up their 18th season as members of the Sun Belt Conference with a trip to the league’s first championship game. Once there, they came up 11 points short to the Mountaineers but don’t let that mislead you… this team is still very worthy of postseason ball.
Led by first-year coach Billy Napier, Louisiana compiled a 7-6 record (5-3 Sun Belt). Those six losses aren’t exactly ones to fault the Cajuns for either. Two came to the class of the conference in App. State, one to #16 Mississippi State and finally one to the college football’s darling Alabama (all on the road); forgivable defeats to say the least.
The Cajuns had to overcome a poor 1-3 start to reach bowl status. After defeating Grambling State in the opener, they dropped their next three but went on to win six of the remaining eight to lock up a spot in the Sun Belt title game. They are a battle-tested bunch that aren’t flapped by adversity. After you’ve gone toe-to-toe with the Tide in Tuscaloosa, there’s not much that can faze you.
This season’s accomplishments, though, aren’t necessarily indicative of success in recent years. In fact from 2015 to 2017, the Cajuns have just a 15-22 overall record. They last reached the postseason in 2016 when they were defeated by Southern Miss. in that year’s New Orleans Bowl, a game this team is very familiar with.
This December will mark the first time in nearly half a century that the program finds itself in a postseason contest that isn’t the New Orleans Bowl. You’d have to go all the way back to the 1970 season when the Cajuns took on Tennessee State in the Grantland Rice Bowl and back then they were known as the Southwestern Louisiana Bulldogs. Until now, Louisiana has been the poster child for the New Orleans Bowl, taking part in five of the last seven.
Offense: Senior quarterback Andre Nunez and dynamic sophomore running back Trey Ragas have been anchors on this year’s team and are a big reason why Louisiana ranks second in the conference for total offense (437.1 yards per game) and scoring offense (423 total points). Ragas was named to the Sun Belt’s third all-conference team for his 1,141 rush yards and eight touchdowns while Nunez eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark throwing.
Defense: Louisiana doesn’t fare quite as well here. Their defensive unit has surrendered just over 430 yards per contest and 54 total touchdowns. Their rush defense in particular, which will be the main area of concern against Tulane’s run-focused attack, ranks eighth in the Sun Belt (out of 10) allowing 210 yards per game. Linebacker Jacques Boudreaux leads the team with 87 total tackles and DB Michael Jacquet patrols the back end. Jacquet has eight defended passes and two interceptions this season.
Special Teams: Kyle Pfau is the second most accurate kicker in the Sun Belt this year with a field goal percentage of 82.4% (14-of-17) and has only missed one PAT all season. Freshman Rhys Byrns handles punting duties and averages just over 40 yards per kick. Louisiana does not have a kick/punt return score yet this year but Raymond Calais has over 800 total return yards and could easily break one if given the chance.
Tulane Green Wave
Tulane, in a lot of ways, is a spitting reflection of the Cajuns, at least in how they arrived here. Like their opposition, the Wave had to weather a 1-3 early-season setback to reach the Cure Bowl. In fact, they didn’t secure bowl eligibility until the final two minutes of their season when head coach Willie Fritz’s gutsy decision to go for two against Navy paid off.
Unlike Louisiana, though, Tulane is not coming off just one season without a bowl appearance. This team has been yearning for one of these since 2013. This milestone feels like a building block more than anything for a program that has steadily improved in each of Fritz’s three years at the helm.
Tulane’s 6-6 overall record (5-3 American) is the result of a tumultuous season that saw everything from a mid-season quarterback swap to the firing of their offensive coordinator. There was a point when it certainly didn’t seem as though they were destined for anything other than another dreadfully long offseason. Improbable victories over AAC foes like South Florida and the eventual-conference runner-up Memphis, however, helped set the Wave back on the right track and propelled them into the postseason.
Offense: The Green Wave rode the transfer train much of the year on offense. It was the former LSU Tiger Justin McMillan that took over QB duties from Jonathan Banks halfway through the season and did nothing but win games once he did. With McMillan at the reins, Tulane came out on top in four of its last five outings. The crazy thing is, McMillan didn’t become a member of the team until just five days before the season opener.
It was a Texas Tech kid that made a splash in the running game. Corey Dauphine came over and finished as the team’s second leading rusher with 754 yards and seven touchdowns. Dauphine actually had one game early on where half of his touches went for scores. That’s some video game-level stuff.
It should be noted that the offense will now be headed by the newly-hired offensive coordinator Will Hall. Hall comes over from Memphis where he conducted a Tigers unit that set a school record with 42 rushing touchdowns and ranked No. 6 nationally in terms of scoring (43.8 points per game).
Defense: All the Wave’s offensive successes seem like little more than a footnote, though, in light of what they have done on defense, specifically on the line. Opposing quarterbacks are usually in for a long day when they go up against Tulane’s front. The unit is tied for first in the AAC in sacks recorded (35) and sophomore Patrick Johnson has been a big reason why. The defensive end is responsible for 9.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss. They did lose another dynamic force in Robert Kennedy to an ACL injury, though. Kennedy had notched three sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss before his season ended in November.
Special Teams: Tulane boasts two punters with a booming leg. Freshman Ryan Wright has come onto the scene and is averaging over 44 yards per punt while Zachary Block comes in at 38.3. Kicker Merek Glover has missed two PATs this season but ranks eighth in the AAC with eight made field goals.
It’s exciting to see a bowl game that features two in-state rivals and it should be a fun one for everyone in the Bayou. It’s the perfect opportunity for Tulane enact revenge for the 2013 New Orleans Bowl defeat but also a chance for Louisiana to erase the sour taste of that Sun Belt championship defeat from their mouths. Both teams have to feel a tremendous sense of pride and gratitude for reaching this game seeing how their seasons began. Whoever wins will probably register as nothing more than a blip in this year’s bowl season but the victor will take home with them something almost more important than nationwide recognition: bragging rights in their own state.