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Tulane’s 2021: A Season to Forget

Last summer the Green Wave were picked by several to be a dark horse in the AAC. Instead they had their worst season in nearly a decade.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Tulane Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

When Hurricane Ida made landfall in New Orleans back in late August, Tulane’s football program was just one of several groups displaced by the natural disaster. Uprooted schedules and a hasty relocation to Birmingham, AL was a big part of what the Green Wave had to deal with as their tumultuous 2021 campaign got started. The football players, of course, were not the only ones affected by Ida. Not by a long shot. But it was their story of perseverance that got displayed in front of a national audience.

The Green Wave’s season opening contest against Oklahoma turned most college football consumers across the country... even Sooners faithful... into Green Wave fans for those few weeks. Willie Fritz’s team showed a tremendous amount grit when they rolled into Norman for a game that should have been in New Orleans that weekend and stunned viewers everywhere when they took a then-#2 OU team down to the wire. You could hardly fault Tulane for the 40-35 loss. No one would have expected them to play that well under normal conditions, let alone the adverse ones they faced.

Many thought that the Green Wave’s gallant efforts in Week 1 were a harbinger of things to come for the program in 2021. Fritz had taken this team to three consecutive bowl games and Michael Pratt was solidified as the guy of the foreseeable future. A five-point loss on the road to the Sooners should have been a sign to the rest of the AAC... hell, the rest of the G5... that Tulane meant business this year. That’s why trying to make sense of a 2-10 season here at the end of November is even more baffling.

What went so wrong for the Green Wave this fall?

Following the Oklahoma game, Fritz had the tough task of regrouping his team after an emotional, hard-fought loss. Pratt had fought like a warrior and taken vicious hit after vicious hit and everyone rallied behind that performance. The team did exactly what it was supposed to do a week later, despite still not being able to play at home in Yulman Stadium. The Green Wave took out all their frustrations on FCS’ Morgan State Bears and left no doubt in a 69-20 shellacking.

Early Defensive Issues

It was the Wave’s next game where things started to go south. Ole Miss dismantled Tulane to the tune of 707 total offensive yards. The splits were essentially even as far as passing and rushing are concerned. There was no two ways about it; the defense had been exposed in the 40-point defeat and, unfortunately for the Wave, it was only the start. The Rebels had given everyone film on how to handle the defense and it would be a problem that reared its ugly head several more times throughout the year.

Against UAB a week later, things didn’t go much better. The D surrendered over 400 yards and Pratt threw his first two interceptions of the season. The Blazers held the ball for nearly 40 minutes and gassed Tulane’s defense en route to a 28-21 win. The non-conference portion of the season came to a close and the Wave had been beaten around. They were 1-3 when AAC play began, but an upcoming game against ECU surely would get them back on track...right?

In the grand picture of the whole season, one might be able to point to the Pirates game as the turning point where it went downhill fast. Tulane was favored in that game, even with it being on the road. Pratt had developed a nice connection with tight end Tyrick James by this point and they were poised to slice through ECU.

Instead, the Pirates hung 52 points on the defense and 222 of East Carolina’s 612 total yards came courtesy of running back Keaton Mitchell. To give up ungodly numbers against SEC’s Ole Miss is one thing but to do so against the Pirates was something else. It was the lowest point of the season for the D and some started calling for first-year defensive coordinator Chris Hampton’s job.

NCAA Football: Tulane at East Carolina
Keaton Mitchell (#25) put up the most rushing yards by any individual player against Tulane’s defense all season.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Those calls only got louder when the Houston Cougars came to town on a Thursday night. The defense didn’t look much better. The Coogs put up 40 points and over 400 yards on offense.

Hampton would stay but clearly something needed to change. The team was 1-5 and the defense was the reason why. In the span of four games they had allowed an average of over 45 points.

Michael Pratt’s Injury

The SMU game would spell a very different problem for Tulane. The defense was still struggling as the Mustangs romped out to 55-26 victory but suddenly those issues seemed to get pushed to the back burner when Pratt decided to slide on a play late in the game when the outcome was already decided. As Pratt went down, SMU linebacker Gary Wiley came bearing down and lowered the shoulder on his blindside. His head bounced off the turf and Wiley was flagged.

The hit would ultimately mean that freshman Kai Horton would have to serve as the acting signal caller. Pratt’s normal backup Justin Ibieta was out with a torn ACL and Tulane’s lack of depth at quarterback would be another thorn in the side, especially with Cincinnati coming up next.

To Horton’s credit, being asked to make your first career start against the star-studded Bearcats defense is not exactly ideal. As expected, the Green Wave were forced to rely heavily on the ground game to try and alleviate some pressure from Horton. They hung around with Cincy for a while but the Bearcats were a level above Tulane (and the rest of their AAC competition this year). There may have been nothing to be done even if Pratt was in.

Not Finishing

Pratt returned a week later against UCF and the defense had finally started to address some of its issues. It showed when they held Dillon Gabriel and the high-powered Knights offense in check for most of the game. In fact, Tulane held a slim 10-7 lead on UCF until there was six minutes left in the contest. After the Knights went up 14-10 in the late stages, the Green Wave gave themselves a chance. Pratt and the offense were unable to get it done, though, and they fell to 1-8.

That story repeated itself the following game against Tulsa. The Wave defense stiffened up and intercepted Davis Brin three times. They kept the Golden Hurricane within striking distance and the Wave offense actually capitalized on a touchdown pass from Pratt to receiver Phat Watts to tie the game late. The third interception gave Tulane its chance in the waning seconds but kicker Merek Glover missed his 26-yard field goal try and the game headed to overtime. Shamari Brooks got Tulsa into the end zone and the Golden Hurricane defense held. That was that. 1-9.

A season’s worth of frustration was finally let loose when South Florida came to town. Tulane did everything fans thought they could from the beginning against the Bulls. Pratt threw for 311 yards and three scores, the ground game put up nearly 200 yards and the defense forced two turnovers. The Wave walked away with a 45-14 win. It was their first FBS win of the season, and it would be their only one.

In the season finale against Memphis last weekend, again the team did enough to keep it close but failed to finish it out. Pratt threw a touchdown late to draw it within five but the Tigers stifled the Wave down the stretch. The season came to an unceremonious end and the team finished at 2-10.

What’s Next?

The best thing Tulane can do now is put this season in the rear view mirror. It’s over and it needs to be. The disappointment of 2021 down in the Big Easy was immense, but it’s time to look ahead now. Fritz has been signed as the team’s head coach through 2026 and Pratt isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Sure, the program is going to lose some guys this offseason but that’s always the case.

A hard reset is what these guys need. A solid core is still there and if Fritz can work his transfer magic again this offseason then there is hope for next season. Tulane will need another strong recruiting haul, but if anyone can handle righting this ship it’s Fritz. A season like this is uncharted territory for him in his time in New Orleans and we’ll really see what this program is made of when they respond in 2022.