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Tulane’s season in review: Was 2019 a setback?

This year yielded a carbon copy result of last year but why does it feel so different?

Tulane v SMU Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Here we sit, almost a year later to the date, and the Tulane Green Wave finds itself in precisely the same position it was in last December: awaiting its bowl fate with a 6-6 record to show for itself. This year though, things feel so much different. In 2018, the Wave won five of their last six games to barely snag that bowl bid. This year? Well... they did the polar opposite, losing five of six after jumping out to a 5-1 start.

This Tulane campaign leaves us with more questions than answers. How did a team that was once thought of to be a contender for an AAC title end up with a .500 record? Why did Willie Fritz’s team that showed such resilience and resolve down the stretch last year fail to do the same in 2019? Can we... or should we... say that this season was a step back for the Green Wave after posting the same record as a year ago?

Let’s dive in and take a closer look on what went wrong (and right) down on Bourbon Street this fall.

You couldn’t have asked for a much better start to the season if you were a Wave fan. A home win over a talented FIU team was just what the doctor ordered to kick things off. The Greenies absolutely dismantled C-USA’s Panthers 42-14. Justin McMillan threw for 199 yards with a blistering 77.8 completion percentage and two touchdowns. The ground game tacked on three more scores by way of Amare Jones, Corey Dauphine and again McMillan. Outside of one fumble, the team looked flawless on that opening Thursday night. Fritz’s program was seemingly picking up right where it left off.

The next week was a rough one but it was expected to be. Then #10 Auburn welcomed the Greenies into Jordan-Hare to the tune of almost $2 million and sent them back to New Orleans with a respectable 24-6 loss. McMillan wasn’t nearly as sharp, going just 10-for-33 on his pass attempts.

Tulane v Auburn
Tulane running back Amare Jones carries the ball against Auburn on Sep. 7
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

The offense was sluggish and failed to find the end zone but the defense held their own against one of the SEC’s cornerstone programs. Thanks to the Wave D, the Tigers were only able to muster up 172 rush yards (significantly less than Auburn’s try against Oregon the week prior).

After the game, Tulane offensive Coordinator Will Hall took blame for the slow night on offense and promised to improve the lackluster performance.

He did just that a week later when the FCS’s Missouri State Bears came to town. On another night where the Wave looked virtually untouchable, the ground game accounted for six touchdowns and yet no Tulane rusher surpassed 100 yards.

The theme of the night was “spread the wealth” and the Wave did it perfectly. Four different ball carriers scored, eight receivers got in on the action through the air and in total 19 different players touched the ball on offense. The result? A 58-6 shellacking.

The FCS tune-up contest came at precisely the right time because up next was Houston. Mind you, this was still the juncture of the season in which the Cougars were vying for a conference crown and still had the dynamic D’Eriq King. Everyone expected a dogfight between this new-look, explosive Tulane team and a Houston club that had been a terror in the AAC West. Fittingly so, the game was flexed to the Thursday night ESPN spotlight and it did not disappoint in the slightest.

After allowing the Cougs to score on the first play of the game (a 75-yd TD pass from King to Marquez Stevenson), the Wave had to weather the storm that was the Houston offense. The Cougars jumped out to a commanding 28-7 lead early in the second quarter. The resilience we talked about earlier was finally tested for Tulane.

Stephon Huderson scampered in from nine yards out to cut the deficit to 14 at the half. Soon after, McMillan hit Darnell Mooney for a deep 48-yard scoring strike. Pair that with a McMillan TD run and the game was knotted up at 28 early in the fourth.

Tulane took the lead thanks to Merek Glover’s 44-yard field goal but Houston kicker Dalton Witherspoon countered with a 24-yarder of his own to tie it back up. There was only 21 ticks on the clock following Witherspoon’s kick. The game was destined for overtime...

Well, that’s what we all thought anyways. As Tulane lined up to take the apparent knee, Amare Jones caught the Cougar defense napping and busted out an 18-yard run to the left side. That, of course, set up the the Jalen McCleskey 53-yard walk-off score that would happen a play later. No overtime. No win for Houston. And, according to many, no doubt that Tulane should be considered as a powerhouse in the conference.

By every definition of the term, that Houston game was supposed to be the Green Wave’s arrival. It was (and still is) Tulane’s pièce de résistance of 2019. The comeback, the fake knee and the walk-off. The nation got to watch it unfold and Yulman Stadium was pure bedlam. They were a laughing stock no more.

Houston v Tulane
Justin McMillan celebrates with the student section at Yulman Stadium after defeating Houston on Sep. 19
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

A timely bye week ensued and after that, the Wave validated their newfound praise when they traveled to West Point and took down Army. The Black Knights normally dominant run game was stymied and held to under 200 yards. The offense put up 525 total yards, Jones scored twice and Tulane walked away with nine-point win.

4-1 quickly tuned to 5-1 when UConn came in. To no one’s surprise, the Greenies manhandled the Huskies. Both McMillan and backup QB Keyon Howard got playing time and each threw TD passes. Three Tulane rushers broke the chalk and when the dust settled the Wave delivered a staggering 49-7 win.

It was about then that the #RankTulane push began on Twitter. I remember one person even went so far as to call the committee cowards for not doing so in the following week’s rankings. It was an exciting time to be a Tulane fan and bowl eligibility was just a frog’s hair away.

While Tulane was basking in their hot start and newly-found relevance another AAC West team was enjoying their own success. The Memphis Tigers also found themselves with a 5-1 record but they were a bit more disgruntled than the Wave, just coming off a heartbreaking road loss to Temple and losing their then-#23 rank. Memphis had something to prove while the Wave comfortably rode a four-game win streak.

That’s probably why their upcoming clash went like it did.

Because of both teams’ early success, the game was hyped and rightfully so. The winner would take a stranglehold on the division and probably crack the rankings. The loser’s path to the conference title would get much rockier. It had a very similar feel to the Houston game, at least in terms of importance. That similar feel, however, went away shortly after kickoff.

Memphis was hosting and they wasted no time jumping out to a ten-point lead in front of the home crowd. Running back Kenny Gainwell was gashing the Green Wave defense and by night’s end he would end up setting a new school record, becoming the first player in program history to record over 200 rush yards and 100 receiving yards in the same game.

Tigers quarterback Brady White tossed five touchdown passes, no interceptions and threw for 358 yards in a masterpiece performance.

While Memphis could do no wrong, it seemed as though Tulane could do no right. McMillan threw three picks and the ground game failed to break 150 yards. The once-dominant offense... the same one that put up over 40 points four different times... only scored 17. The Wave was run out of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in embarrassing fashion.

Looking back, this was probably the one... the point where it all started to go south. It was a loss the team never fully recovered from. While Memphis went on to put together a season-ending rampage that currently has them at #18 and primed to play in the AAC Championship this weekend, Tulane began a downward spiral.

Following the disheartening loss to the Tigers, the Wave went on to fall to Navy a week later in Annapolis. Bijan Nichols’ game-winning field goal as time expired ripped the hearts of the Green Wave faithful once more, this time in a drastically different fashion. You would have almost preferred the blowout.

Tulane at Navy
Justin McMillan tries to evade a tackle against Navy on Oct. 26
Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette/Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The only reprieve in the dismal November came against Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane gave it a mighty try against Tulane but, thanks to McMillan’s four total TDs, the Wave came out victorious for the sixth time this season, clinching bowl eligibility for the second consecutive year. At the very least, that was under their belt now.

What was once ugly, though, got downright horrendous for Tulane in the following weeks. After a week off, the Wave hit the road again, this time to take on Temple. While in the great state of Pennsylvania they were hoping to right the ship and turn the season around. Instead, though, the Owls were the ones who nothced their seventh win.

Temple kicker Will Mobley hit three field goals and Tulane failed to score until deep into the second quarter. When the Owls tacked on nine more points to a 13-7 lead in the third quarter, the Wave found itself in yet another deep hole.

The ground attack led a furious comeback for Tulane. Both Cameron Carroll and Darius Bradwell scored touchdowns in the fourth but it wasn’t quite enough. Anthony Russo’s second touchdown pass of the day was the one that put the Wave away.

Now at 6-4, competing for an AAC title was off the table barring some colossal miracle . The only hope now was to salvage a couple wins before season’s end to at least take a winning record into bowl season. With both UCF and SMU left, however, that task would prove to be too tall of an order.

First it was the Knights who came in for the last home game of the season and beat the Greenies on Senior Day. Another comeback bid fell short and yet another loss befell the team.

Last weekend was Tulane’s final opportunity to snag a regular-season victory but alas, it did not happen as the Mustangs... despite being outgained 465-to-377... rolled to a 17-point win. McMillan had performed admirably, throwing for 242 yards and no interceptions. Two lost fumbles, though, doomed the Wave in SMU’s 10th win of their impressive season.

Just like that, the record fell back even to 6-6.

Tulane v SMU
Tulane’s Jalen McCleskey drops a pass against SMU on Nov. 30
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It really is funny how two seasons that yielded the same final mark can feel so drastically different. There was so much excitement and hope as Tulane waited for their bowl pairing this time last December. This year? Not so much. The bowl game, wherever and whoever it may be, serves as the last chance to win before 2019 comes to a close.

After that, who knows what happens next. Could Willie Fritz depart for Missouri? The idea been faintly tossed around. However unlikely it may seem, it’s possible. What will this team be without seniors like McMillan, Bradwell and Mooney? Those are all questions that must be faced later this offseason but for now, Wave fans, there is one more game. Focus on that.

Like any season, there was both good and bad. It just feels worse because the bad all came in one, ugly cluster at the end. This team still won six games though, and many of them by a wide margin. Some of the losses were painfully close too. It all needs to be taken with a sense of perspective.

So can we claim that 2019 has been a step in the wrong direction? I’d be hard-pressed to say yes to that. It certainly wasn’t a step forward like many were expecting but with one more game still on the docket, there is a chance to end this thing the right way.

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Tulane will learn its bowl fate on Sunday. For those curious on where and who they can possibly play click here.