Friday night’s conference opener couldn’t have gone much better for Willie Fritz’s crew.
Tulane showed visiting Memphis from the get go that they meant business. The Wave took the opening drive 75 yards for a touchdown and chewed up nearly six minutes doing so. Tulane knew going in that the key to beating the high-powered Tigers would be holding the ball for as long as possible and taking unconventional chances. They did both early but only one went as planned.
The Green Wave got ambitious after their opening score and attempted a surprise onside kick. Trying to steal a possession from Memphis sounds nice until it doesn’t work. It took the country’s best running back all of 12 seconds to make Tulane pay for their gamble. Darrell Henderson cut through the Wave defense for an untouched 47-yard scoring run. Just like that it was tied 7-7 and it appeared that Memphis was primed for another one of its patented offensive onslaughts.
However Tulane promptly responded. Darius Bradwell burst through the Tigers D-line on fourth down for a long touchdown scamper of his own. When the Greenies reclaimed the lead this time they didn’t look back.
Memphis’ dangerous offense was stymied in New Orleans as the Wave rolled to an impressive 16-point victory to open AAC play. Tulane’s ground game put up 318 yards, four touchdowns and helped keep the ball out of quarterback Brady White’s hands.
When they did have possession, the boys in stripes failed to do much of anything at all. Henderson finished the night with only 51 yards on seven carries while White’s 246 yards and two touchdown tosses just weren’t enough.
Tulane quarterback Jonathan Banks, who Fritz confirmed would be in a competition with former LSU transfer Justin McMillan for the starting job, played well but exited the game late in the third quarter with an apparent calf injury after being shaken up by a big hit. It hardly mattered though as McMillan threw a long touchdown strike on his first snap after coming in. Banks’ injury didn’t appear to be serious but he did not return; something to keep an eye on moving forward.
The game had plenty of takeaways for both teams as they move deeper into AAC action. For Tulane it was a great start but by no means perfect and for Memphis, while demoralizing, it isn’t time to hit the panic button just yet.
The Good: For Tulane I really really wanted to rave about the running game which, don’t kid yourself, absolutely deserves it. Corey Dauphine and Bradwell each had two scores and combined for well over 200 yards. However the Green Wave defense forced me to save this section for them. The D, who only had six sacks entering this game, dropped White seven times. They recorded the team’s first safety since 2014 and only surrendered 24 points to a Memphis offense that is capable of putting up astronomical numbers. Before Friday evening the Tigers were averaging 49.5 points and nearly 600 yards of total offense per contest. Tulane held them to 277; a huge performance to say the least.
Memphis had some bright spots also despite the loss. While Henderson was bottled up for much of the game, he did break off a few of the big yardage plays he’s known for. He was responsible for two of the Tigers’ three touchdowns (one receiving, one rushing) both of which were over 40 yards. If he continues to show that big play ability Memphis can, and most likely will, make some noise down the stretch. The Tigers also had no turnovers. Something to hang their hat on after this disheartening defeat.
The Bad: I don’t know how many times I’ll be saying this as the season goes on but Wave fans should probably just get used to hearing it; the penalties need to stop. Tulane is drawing flags at an alarming rate. This game saw them penalized nine times for 95 yards. That now makes 35 on the season for a total of 336 yards, plus this was their third nine-penalty game this year. Yeah, they bailed themselves out this time but they can’t rely on that all season.
For Memphis you could point to a number of things; the fact that their offense only ran for 31 yards was troubling and letting White get sacked seven times was certainly an area of concern. The biggest problem the Tigers seemed to have, though, came on third down. They converted a mere four of their 12 tries (33%) and saw several drives peter out as a result. That low percentage contributed to them only holding the ball for 20:21 of the game’s 60 minutes which made for a lackluster night.
The Ugly: The usually sure-handed Darnell Mooney dropped several passes for Tulane early on. Banks targeted the junior receiver six times in the first quarter and he only hauled in half of them. It was an uncharacteristic start for Mooney who later redeemed himself with a 51-yard touchdown grab.
The loss now has Memphis 0-2 in the American and looking up in the West Division standings. This is obviously not a position the Tigers want to be in heading into their third conference matchup and it’s beginning to look as though making a return trip to the AAC title game is a dream of the past.
Memphis’ Silver Lining: If there’s one guy you can’t blame Friday’s loss on it’s linebacker Bryce Huff. Huff was terror in Tulane’s backfield for the entire game and did his part to keep the dynamic Green Wave offense at bay. He finished the evening with five tackles for a loss and two sacks. Memphis fans should be pleased with what they saw out of #55. If the rest of the D can rise to the standard Huff set in this one then opposing offenses better batten down the hatches.
Moving forward Tulane (2-3) finds themselves in a nice spot. If they play like they did here, next Saturday’s game in Cincinnati is quite winnable. It would be a nice road victory to snag before their bye week and .500 is right on pace for a bowl-game.
Memphis (3-2) now has a week to regroup and get ready to host UConn who has looked less than impressive so far this year. The team’s first conference win could (and should) be right around the corner.