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The Art of the Upset: Tulane’s blueprint for pulling a shocker in Columbus

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On paper Ohio State-Tulane might as well already be over. But just ask Michigan where that line of thinking can get you.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Ohio State Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In 2007 the Mountaineers showed us all how it’s done.

The date was September 1st, the place was Ann Arbor. A crowd of almost 110,000 had come to watch their beloved Wolverines dismantle the little FCS school that had signed a $400,000 contract giving them the privilege of hitting the gridiron with mighty Michigan, who was ranked No. 5 in the nation and poised to make a run at the National Championship.

Three minutes in Mike Hart plowed across the goal line for a four-yard score; the stadium shook with the team’s first touchdown of the season. You could feel the might of the maize and blue raining down on the visiting sideline. They appeared to be in for a disastrous afternoon and those few App State fans in the building who made the trip were probably already looking for the quickest route home. But then it started to happen.

Quarterback Armanti Edwards hit Dexter Jackson in stride and he took it 68 yards to the house. Julian Rauch’s PAT sailed through the uprights and the game was tied. A noble effort by the defending I-AA champs but still, this was Michigan. The Big House. Surely there was no way they could match Chad Henne, Mario Manningham and the Wolverines blow for blow all game.

It didn’t take long. Henne found Greg Mathews. 10 yards and another touchdown. The lead belonged to the home team again and a collective sigh of relief swept through the sea of Michigan fans. This was it. There would be no looking back now.

Edwards wasted no time leading his offense down the field again though, and capped the drive off with another scoring toss, this one from nine yards out. Tied again. What was happening? The sense of uneasiness that plagued Michigan Stadium when the scoreboard read 14-14 that day quickly spiraled into utter dread as the Mountaineers proceeded to find the end zone twice more and take an 11-point lead into halftime.

It was probably about then when at-home viewers across the nation scrambled for their remotes to tune into the Big Ten Network’s inaugural game. The country watched as Appalachian State’s incredibly impossible lead began to dwindle in the second half. Down to eight. Then to five. And finally, with only 4:36 left, it had vanished. Hart’s third touchdown, a 54 yard scamper, had restored order in the sports universe. And then, as it so often tends to in football, everything came down to a kicker.

Rauch probably thought he would never forget the sight of the football his toe had just made contact with soaring between the goalposts. I bet he, like the rest of us, imagined that that was the moment that would live on. The one that would haunt Ann Arbor for decades to come. But I would venture to say that most Michigan fans would never even be able to tell you who Julian Rauch was. Not in light of the events that transpired seconds later.

But ask them about Corey Lynch and you’ll watch the wince crawl across their face. It’s almost as if you’ll still be able to see Lynch’s hand block that final kick in their eyes, as if you’ll hear Thom Brennaman’s voice still shouting through their televisions, ringing in their ears: “APPALACHIAN STATE HAS STUNNED THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL WORLD! ONE OF THE GREATEST UPSETS IN SPORTS HISTORY!”

And he was right. No sporting event, perhaps save the U.S. hockey victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics, gave visual representation to David and Goliath better than App State – Michigan in ’07. It was, by all accounts, a biblical-proportioned upset.

The game was more than 11 years ago now but what Appalachian State did that day gave hope to every contractually-obliged, lamb-to-the-slaughter team that finds itself pitted against a juggernaut. It cemented the idea that anyone can pull off an upset. It just takes the right stuff and, while a hefty majority who try never come close, a rare few do give the Power Five heavyweights a scare and keep it close. A smaller amount come out victorious and leave a nasty, embarrassing mark on the program that actually pays them to do it. Now listen up Tulane fans. Your team has the opportunity to do that very thing on Saturday.


Tulane v Oklahoma
Tulane football is no stranger to tough opponents. The Green Wave prepares to take the field against Oklahoma in 2017.
Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

The Blueprint

2007’s stunner in Ann Arbor wasn’t just a sporting spectacle that will go down in history. It was a step-by-step outline on how to be the winner in a game where no one is giving you a chance. If the Wave can follow said outline closely then they may just be the next team we talk about alongside the likes of other improbable victors. In order to cook up such a colossal upset, the Green Wave will need to adhere to the following recipe to a tee…

Requirements

One Massive Mismatch: Obviously there has to be some sort of wide gap between the clubs playing making one the clear favorite. The Mountaineers, as stated prior, were an FCS team at the time while Michigan was… well Michigan. You can look to any number of disparities between the two to see how much actually separated these schools and their programs in terms of resources and talent.

The No. 4 Buckeyes are coming off a Big Ten championship and a 12-2 season in which many feel like they were robbed of a spot in the playoff. They’re 3-0 after an impressive win over TCU last week. Oh, and the last time they were unranked was in September of 2011. Meanwhile the Green Wave won only five games a year ago, none of which came against ranked opponents, and are 1-2 coming in with that one win being against an FCS opponent. Tulane hasn’t appeared in the postseason since 2013 and the last time they showed up in the national rankings was in late 1998. Also, Urban Meyer just happens to come back from his three-game suspension this week and his team will be out for blood.

Let’s just say the stage is set.

Instructions

First Quarter: Show them you came to play.

Tulane will have to start fast. Quarterback Jonathan Banks needs to lead the offense right down the field. The drive doesn’t necessarily have to be quick but it does need to be efficient. There can’t be off-target throws or plays that result in lost yardage. Keep in mind, Edwards was perfect for App State at halftime going 7-of-7 with 129 yards and three touchdowns plus one more rushing. Banks too will need a flawless to near-flawless performance, especially to start the game. That means the offensive line has to hold up; a tall order against some of the best defensive ends college football has to offer in All-American Nick Bosa and teammate Chase Young (looking at you John Leglue).

Tulane v Florida International
Tulane will need a big game from QB Jonathan Banks.
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

As far as the running backs go, they’ll need to hit any rays of daylight they see like a semi-truck. Corey Dauphine, Darius Bradwell and whoever else has to pop the Ohio State big boys in the mouth on every single carry. They’ll want to make the Buckeye defense have flashbacks of Saquon Barkley because that first drive, really the first quarter, is about sending a message. If Banks and company go down and score right away then everyone in the building will start to see that maybe Tulane has come to do more than take part in a glorified football clinic.

This is not a task that’s impossible for this squad either. Last year against the Baker Mayfield-led Sooners, the Green Wave took the lead not once, but twice and had it knotted up 14-14 at the end of one. That couldn’t have felt great to Sooner Nation and it definitely won’t feel great for the Buckeyes if it happens this Saturday.

Fortunately for the Wave, though, it’s not an absolute requirement that they score before their opponent. They will not have to raise the white flag and call it a day if the Buckeyes go up 7-0. The Mountaineers showed us that you can deviate from the “score first” model if need be and still be alright. There is a caveat however. If Tulane doesn’t score right off the bat and has to play form behind, they must answer and do so in a big way.

Willie Fritz will need to keep his team upbeat, positive, and focused in the very likely event of an early Ohio State lead. Just remember, the Mountaineers trailed by seven going into the second quarter against Michigan. As long as the Wave remains within striking distance as the first quarter comes to a close, they’ll have the Buckeyes right where they want them.

Second Quarter: Cut loose and let it fly.

2007’s upset of the decade featured an astonishing second quarter from the Mountaineers. Appalachian State had an improbable 11-point lead when they retired to halftime because they had a monster performance in the 15 minutes leading up to it. App’s offense put up 21 points in the second frame while holding Michigan to a lowly three. Either defensively or offensively (but preferably both), it is essential for Tulane to have an explosive second quarter.

There’s a factor that comes into play that not everyone takes into account regarding the first half of these games. More often than not, the two clubs have seldom met (in this case they never have) meaning neither is all that familiar with the other’s style of play and what they can throw at them. Sure, you can watch loads of film and get a general idea, but for Ohio State it’s not as if this is a Penn State or Michigan squad they see on a yearly basis. The second quarter could be one where the Buckeyes are still trying to get a concrete concept of Tulane and their habits. If that’s the case, it’ll be the perfect opportunity for the Wave, specifically the offense, to step out of the box and get creative.

Tulane can’t stick to the script because the script right now has Ohio State taking this one by at least 30. If Fritz is feeling comfortable with his guys by this point, he should trust them and let them make plays. They should run reverses, try deep bombs and even throw something like a flea flicker or fake punt in there if they feel like they can. It’ll be important to be creative and aggressive in the second quarter to show that not only was the first period no fluke but to take advantage of an opponent that may be still trying to figure out their scheme.

Receivers Terren Encalade and Darnell Mooney are more than capable of being dynamite on the outside, so if Ohio State’s D is showing those two too much attention, Banks can make them pay for it over the middle with tight end Charles Jones. Or maybe Dauphine can break one or two loose on the ground. The offense has a variety of options and will need to use all of them if they are to keep pace.

Defensively Tulane needs to be punishing and force the Buckeyes into difficult situations. If they can get to quarterback Dwayne Haskins, record a few sacks, and push the Ohio State offense into difficult third downs, life will be the slightest bit easier. Tulane’s D-line should be flying off the ball on every snap and the secondary needs to find a way to provide lockdown coverage on the outside. The play of Donnie Lewis Jr. and Roderic Teamer Jr. will be of the utmost importance because K.J. Hill, Austin Mack and company are deadly. However if the secondary can lock it down and give King nowhere to throw then Ohio State becomes half as dangerous (which, don’t kid yourself, is still very dangerous).

Ohio State v Rutgers
Receiver K.J. Hill is one of many offensive weapons Ohio State will boast on Saturday.
Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Whatever transpires in the second quarter, it should be so that the Buckeyes are as lost and reeling as Michigan was in ’07. App State had the Wolverines so discombobulated that they had to call a timeout on a run-of-the-mill field goal attempt at the end of the first half because there wasn’t enough men on the field. The confusion on the team was painfully evident as their own fans cast down a chorus of boos in the closing seconds before halftime. Tulane will want to send the Horseshoe into a similar fit of frustration and worry at the break.

Third Quarter: Weather the storm.

An Ohio State team that’s had an entire halftime to think about a close game against the Green Wave is both a good and bad thing for Tulane. Yeah, they’ve gotten a rude awakening for 30 minutes and may not be in the best state mentally or emotionally but that’s only going to spark a fire. As Mountaineers coach Jerry Moore predicted entering the third quarter against a disgruntled Michigan, “We’re going to catch the best that the Big Ten’s got.” The same can be said for the Wave. The Buckeyes will come out of halftime swinging away if the game is not where they want it and Tulane has to be ready.

It only took the Wolverines two plays after halftime to start to turn things around. They intercepted Edwards and cashed in for three points. Again, though, Tulane should take note of what App State did in response. Not only did they tack on three more to their own score, they recovered a Michigan fumble. The Wave will need to be able to match whatever Ohio State throws their way in the third and really all game. The collective mindset for almost everyone except the Tulane bench will be that if the Buckeyes can just keep at it, eventually the Green Wave will wear down. That can’t be the case.

The mental aspect of the game is going to be paramount in this period. If Banks makes a mistake and throws a pick, he can’t get in his own head about it. If one of the backs coughs it up, they’ll need to have a short memory. The truth of the matter is, Ohio State is going to make things happen and Tulane will just have to find a way to keep pace. The go-to guys are going to have to step up here perhaps more than ever. Ask the Mountaineers, the only thing worse than playing a Power Five heavyweight is playing one that’s pissed off.

If Tulane is able to go toe to toe in the third and keep it tight, turn your attention to special teams and specifically the kick return game. If the Wave is lining up for a kick return it means one of two things is happening; they’re either starting the half or they’re trying to regain momentum. In the third quarter this could be huge. First, imagine Tulane takes the opening kick after halftime to the house. Disheartening. Now imagine they do it right after the Buckeyes score? Equally as demoralizing. Special teams could be the spark they need to keep the seeds of doubt planted in OSU’s minds as the fourth quarter arrives.

Fourth Quarter: Make “the play.”

In almost every huge upset you’ll be able to point to one instance that does it. It’s the one they replay on SportsCenter for weeks after the game. Corey Lynch’s blocked kick, Jared Zabransky’s statue of liberty handoff against Oklahoma for Boise State, Vince Young’s dart into the end zone in the National Championship against USC; there’s always one. For the Green Wave, it’ll be a matter of finding what that moment is and then capitalizing on it.

We won’t rehash what it’ll take for Tulane to stay close in the fourth, it’s the same formula as before. Whatever leads up for the final two minutes, the Wave either needs to be winning or down by just a few. If they are, it’ll be desperation time. Game plans be damned. At this point it’ll be Tulane doing whatever it can to survive the final ticks of the clock. The term desperation doesn’t feel quite right but I have yet to find a better one.

The team that term will certainly apply to is Ohio State if Tulane is hot on their heels or, if by some chance, they’re losing in the closing minutes. If the Buckeyes are making the last drive, “the play” will have to come on defense. Maybe Donnie Lewis intercepts Haskins on a final heave to the end zone. Or maybe an unsung member of the special teams field goal unit pulls a Corey Lynch and blocks the would-be game-winner.

Ditto for the offense. Someone on that side might have to make “the play.” The beautiful thing about it is, it can be anyone and it can come out of seemingly nowhere. For just one snap though, at least one player on the Wave’s roster will have to dig down and find some magic. It won’t be easy, of course, but to see that the scoreboard flash Tulane victory will definitely be worth it.

So there’s the recipe. See? Piece of cake.


NCAA Football: Army at Ohio State
Tulane will be met by thousands of raucous Buckeyes fans in Ohio Stadium this weekend.
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll be the first to say that logically speaking, this game has the makings to be a nightmare for the Wave. An upset Urban Meyer makes his return and it’s the Buckeyes’ last chance to steamroll a G5 opponent before conference play begins. It certainly seems as if the stars have aligned against Tulane in this one. But, I’ll also always be the first to say never sleep on the little guy. A team that has nothing to lose and everything to gain is sometimes the most dangerous one.

Now, I’m on record calling an Ohio State victory so this isn’t meant to be a prediction. It’s more of a really elaborate “what if” and I pose that question to you. What if New Orleans’ little band of underdogs come into Columbus and leaves with a W? I can almost hear all you Buckeyes fans scoffing right now, but seriously… what if?

It would certainly be one of the program’s biggest victories in its 125-year history and undoubtedly the AAC would receive a little more recognition in the college football landscape. A win like this would be impossible to ignore but at the same time it’s almost impossible to achieve. You can bet that if they somehow walk away with a victory in hand, Tulane and their fans will never forget September 22, 2018 and where they were on that day.

So don’t count the Greenies out just yet. After all, the reason we haven’t officially given Ohio State the win is because the game still has to be played. Anything can happen.