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Tulane leaves Houston stunned in instant classic on Thursday Night

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For one night New Orleans was the epicenter of the college football world thanks to two incredible plays.

Houston v Tulane Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Thursday night’s contest against AAC-rival Houston was not a game for Tulane, it was a coronation. There is no question about it anymore, the Green Wave is for real and they’re bearing down on a conference title this year. Their latest showcase... an unbelievably impossible last-second win over Houston... is just the latest reason why.

NCAA Football: Houston at Tulane
Tulane receiver Jalen McCleskey celebrates after his game-winning score on Thursday night.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s take it back for a second though. Things looked pretty bleak coming out of the gates if you were a fan of the Greenies. On the first play of the night, Cougars dynamic QB D’Eriq King connected with receiver Marquez Stevenson for a 75-yard touchdown to give Houston a 7-0 lead before things even got going. Stevenson would finish as the Cougs’ leading receiver with 95 yards.

Justin McMillan and the Tulane offense refused to fold, however, and shortly after he would tie things up with a deep scoring strike of his own to Jalen McCleskey. Everyone knew they were in for a quite a show by this point, or at least that’s what they thought.

It was Houston, though, that appeared to put the game on ice early. King hit Keith Corbin for a 28-yard score following a Kyle Porter 1-yd touchdown run and just like that, the visitors held the commanding 14-point lead. That advantage only grew when King used his legs to find the end zone on a 35-yard scamper. Leading 28-7 early in the second, the game was almost out of reach for the Wave... almost.

As they did before, the Tulane offense steadied the course and was able to produce a touchdown of their own again before halftime. Stephon Huderson ran it in from nine yards out to cut the Houston lead back to 14 heading into intermission. It was still a double-digit deficit, but not one that was insurmountable for Willie Fritz’s team.

The only score of the third period came on a another deep McMillan pass, this one to receiver Darnell Mooney for a 48-yard touchdown. McMillan, like his counterpart King, was showing why his offense is one of the best in the American. He would finish with three passing touchdowns and 186 yards through the air while King came away with 229 and two scores.

NCAA Football: Houston at Tulane
D’Eriq King (#4) threw for over 200 yards against the Green Wave.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Down by just seven heading into the fourth, McMillan and the Wave began to take control. Tulane’s dual-threat quarterback called his own number on a 15-yard scoring run to tie things up early in the final frame. A little while later, kicker Merek Glover gave the Greenies their first lead of the night when he connected on a 44-yard field goal. Now at 31-28, all Tulane had to do was hold and the much-needed victory was theirs.

The Cougars, though, are not a team that goes down quietly (just ask Washington State who had to earn every bit of their win last week). King commanded the offense down to the Green Wave seven-yard line but Tulane’s defense held strong and forced the field goal. Dalton Witherspoon nailed his 24-yard chip shot and it was 31 all again. The Yulman faithful anxiously settled into their seats and prepared for overtime. Little did they know, though, Fritz had other plans.

Ensue chaos...

With 13 seconds showing on the clock, McMillan and the offense trotted out to take the apparent knee. Instead, though, after taking the snap, sophomore running back Amare Jones was able to break free on an 18-yard run that set the Wave up at the 47. Now... at the very least... Tulane had a chance.

Jones’ play was huge, yes, but it didn’t hold a candle to what happened next. As if out of a movie, McMillan used the offense’s final play to launch a deep pass to McCleskey who made an outstanding catch in traffic before bursting free and sprinting into the end zone before a raucous New Orleans crowd.

It was undoubtedly the greatest moment Yulman Stadium had seen since its founding in 2013.

I took everyone, including myself, a while to wrap their minds around what had just happened. After Houston went through the formalities of a desperate hook-and-ladder attempt that came up well short, the Green Wave players and coaches flooded the field. It was truly one of the best moments in recent Green Wave memory.

The Good: For Houston, they showed that... in spite of the crushing defeat and a 1-3 start to their season... they are not dead in this conference race yet. Let’s not forget that two of their losses have come to P5 schools. King is still a dynamite playmaker and knows how to make things happen with both his arm and his legs. The Wave may have dealt the first hay-maker in this AAC West fight but don’t stick a fork in the Cougs just yet. The offense finished 533 total yards to their name and put up four touchdowns. Those numbers will win you a lot of games.

As far as Tulane is concerned, all we can say is wow. Clutch is an understatement for what the Wave did on Thursday night. A prime-time ESPN contest under the eyes of the nation was not a moment too big for Fritz’s crew. Two years ago, a Houston-Tulane matchup wouldn’t so much as scratch the surface of competitive games. Now? Well, you saw. This 2019 Wave squad has gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Auburn and now has defeated former conference-heavyweight Houston on a grand stage. They are for real.

The Bad: The Cougars were simply not able to contain Tulane’s bruising run game. The Wave rushed for well over 300 yards. Darius Bradwell gashed the Houston defense for 113 yards while McMillan ran for another 91. Corey Dauphine came out with 71 as well. Things will have to improve up front if this group is to be successful down the stretch.

For all they did right, the Green Wave was pretty dismal when it came to third down. Sure, they converted on the right ones late, but going 4/13 is pretty bad. Oh yeah, those 12 penalties for 82 yards weren’t great either.

The Ugly: The final two plays were the most ugly part of the night for the Cougars. It sounds odd to say, but other than that final, chaotic series Houston played solidly all night. An inability to play closer with 13 seconds left, however, is going to haunt this team for quite sometime.

For Tulane, nothing. Nothing was ugly about this. Yes, the Greenies didn’t play perfect football but everything on this night... even those uniforms... was pretty darn beautiful if you were a Green Wave fan.

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I took to Twitter right after “it” happened and said that this win cemented the idea that the 2019 Tulane team is not the same as the many teams of this school’s tortured football past. In fact, I went as far to say that they might be the most special one since that undefeated 1998 squad and yes I meant it. Now at 3-1 and with a firm foot ahead in the AAC West race, it’s time to stop sleeping on the Wave. McMillan is as clutch and as dynamite as they come. Fritz is clearly a creative mastermind. The American should take note of what’s happening in New Orleans. Tulane is a laughing stock no more.

NCAA Football: Houston at Tulane
Tulane head coach Willie Fritz celebrates his team’s big win.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

For Houston, this is not the end. You still do have D’Eriq King so you still have a chance. It does, however, look bleak right now. It’s a long road ahead but there’s still plenty of football to be played. First-year coach Dana Holgorson has a tall order in front of him but if anyone has the right guys to steady this ship, it’s him.

Up Next: Tulane now gets some extended time off before heading on the road to face a very good Army team. Following a bye, the Wave will square off with the Black Knights on October 5th.

Houston will also take to the road yet again to face North Texas on September 28th.