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Party in New Orleans: Tulane rolls past UCF 45-28 for first-ever AAC title

Green Wave are headed to Cotton Bowl after dominant offensive performance in New Orleans.

Kim Montuoro

A record crowd funneled into Yulman Stadium on Saturday night in hopes of watching a never-before-seen coronation unfold.

Tulane joined the American Athletic Conference in 2014 in the league’s second year following its inception. Over the Green Wave’s first eight seasons of membership, they compiled two winning records and never finished better than 7-6. But last year was particularly difficult as the team struck rock bottom by posting a 2-10 record. But this Tulane squad remained unwavering in its faith and completely reversed the script in 2022. The Green Wave entered their first AAC Championship Game appearance to date with an antithetical 10-2 record, looking to stray even further from last year’s woes.

“It was tough. We were getting beat every week,” Tulane wide receiver Shae Wyatt said. “Like everyone knows, we were 2-10. They were just throwing dirt over us. For a while it was tough to bounce back, but if you keep your faith and you believe in your brothers that are next to you, flowers will grow... If you look and believe in the person next to you, anything can happen.”

Standing in between the reinvigorated Green Wave and their first conference championship since 1998 was UCF — an AAC championship staple over the years, which knocked off Tulane in a wire-to-wire victory as recently as three weeks ago in New Orleans. But this time, in front of the most electrifying atmosphere in Yulman Stadium history, it was different. Tulane left zero doubt on the scoreboard, avenging the Knights 45-28 in wire-to-wire fashion, with a dominant offensive performance as the guiding force.

“I always thought it was gonna come,” Tulane head coach Willie Fritz said on winning the AAC championship. “I was very optimistic and every time I go into a game, I believe we’re going to win. When I took this job seven years ago, I thought it could happen here. It’s a great area to recruit, it's an outstanding academic institution. You just have to find the right guys, and it took me a few years to learn that.”

Head coach Willie Fritz led Tulane to its first AAC title and first conference championship since 1998.
Kim Montuoro

As soon as the clock struck zero to cement the result into the history books, a horde of energetic spectators decked in sky blue and olive green crammed onto the field to join the Green Wave in the program’s greatest celebration of the 21st century. Confetti blanketed the sky as a field storm ensued, properly ushering in Tulane’s conference championship and its upcoming Cotton Bowl bid.

“I was really proud of our student body and all of our fans,” Fritz said. “It was an electric atmosphere the whole game. They were loud when they needed to be loud. It was a great moment for Tulane University and our football program and athletic department. I’m just proud to be a part of it.”

Tulane’s signature quality had been its potent defense all year, but Saturday night was a theatrical showcase for the offense. Four days after earning AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors, running back Tyjae Spears delivered the performance of a lifetime. Spears broke off for a season-high 203 yards, gashing the UCF defense with a pair of lethal carries spanning over 50 yards in the second half. Peak volume was achieved in the third quarter after his 56-yard run, where chants of “Tyjae! Tyjae! Tyjae!” reverberated throughout the Big Easy.

“You just gotta make one guy miss,” Spears said on his continuous breakaway runs. “I knew if I could cut the ball back across the field, I knew I was gonna score because sometimes they were poorly pursuing their tackling.”

Spears’ breakaway runs produced two of Tulane’s six plays of 40 yards or greater. But quarterback Michael Pratt also rose to the occasion with a career-best 394 passing yards, complemented by four touchdown strikes — and the majority of those touchdowns were from long range. Pratt, the AAC Championship Game Offensive MVP, also added one game-sealing rushing touchdown on an 18-yard scamper with 4:04 remaining.

“It’s tough to be a defense and try to play an offense like that that’s two-dimensional,” Pratt said. “We executed tonight. We got some big plays. Huge credit to the offensive line, the running backs, the receivers, and the coaches for their play calls.”

Pratt’s fireworks show started on Tulane’s first possession when he connected with Wyatt on a wheel route in the end zone. In the second quarter, Pratt found Lawrence Keys III on a hitch route, and the receiver took a wise angle en route to a 43-yard touchdown. Then for his third touchdown pass, Pratt found a wide open Duece Watts for a 73-yard catch-and-run — the longest touchdown in AAC Championship Game history.

“You never know how it’s gonna unfold,” Pratt said on the offense leaning on his arm in the win. “No matter if it’s me with 10 completions and 100 yards or Tyjae with 400 rushing yards — it doesn’t matter. We got the job done and it led us to victory. It was exciting.”

UCF inched within three points in the fourth quarter, but the close deficit didn’t faze Pratt on his career night. On a critical 3rd and 8, he prevented the Knights’ offense from retaking the field by firing a 13-yard strike to Jha’Quan Jackson. Then on the ensuing play, he delivered the sentencing blow. Pratt found Wyatt, who dodged several Knight tacklers for a 60-yard score to retake a 10-point lead. Wyatt finished with 110 yards and two touchdowns in a stellar outing against the Knights secondary.

Tulane WR Shae Wyatt caught two receiving touchdowns and was one of two 100-yard receivers in the AAC title game win.
Kim Montuoro

Tulane’s offense kept its foot on the gas all night. Seemingly the only things that slowed down the Green Wave were a 3-0 deficit in the turnover battle and two failed fourth down conversions on two attempts. Despite remaining free of turnovers, UCF’s offense was the more shaky bunch as the Knights were defined by a complicated quarterback situation.

In the previous outing against South Florida, year-long starter John Rhys Plumlee left the game with a hamstring injury. Plumlee received the starting nod Saturday, but after testing his hamstring on UCF’s first three possessions, he was pulled from the contest. With backup quarterback Mikey Keene a healthy scratch in street clothes, the Knights relied on true freshman Thomas Castellanos to conduct the offense for a significant portion of the conference championship.

“It’s one of those things that you rehab and you try to get better,” Plumlee said. “You try to get to 100 percent and obviously, I practiced, I do what I can do. I ultimately tried everything to try to play in the game. Whether I was 85 percent or 90 percent or 100 percent, I wanted to be able to play in this game, so we tried to prepare as such.”

Castellanos entered New Orleans with a career résumé featuring just eight passing attempts and seven rushes. But in his most significant action to date, the Tulane defense proved too lethal for the first-year quarterback. Castellanos completed 2-of-8 attempts for seven yards while burning his redshirt in the process, and UCF’s offense was plagued with four three-and-outs in the freshman’s final five series.

“Tommy did some really good things. He’s going to be a phenomenal quarterback,” UCF head coach Gus Malzahn said. “The fact that he was able to do what he did, I was really impressed. At the time, we just felt like their defense was so good, we needed our quarterback to be more of a run threat right there with John Rhys and his hamstring.”

UCF QB Thomas Castellanos burned his redshirt while serving as the Knights’ quarterback for the middle portion of the game.
Kim Montuoro

Down 17, Plumlee made a triumphant return to the field in the late third quarter and immediately injected life into the Knights’ previously dormant offense. He sparked the passing game with a 4th and 10 completion to Isaiah Bowser and moments later, he connected with Kobe Hudson in the end zone to cap off an 8-play, 80-yard drive — signifying UCF’s first full scoring drive of the night. Plumlee constructed two additional scoring drives in the fourth quarter — with one starting in ideal field position, courtesy of a Tulane fumble.

Four series after Plumlee returned, the once 17-point margin dwindled down to three in the early fourth quarter. However, defensive struggles kept the Knights’ surging offense from possessing the ball while in striking distance.

“John Rhys just kept telling me, ‘Coach, give me another chance. I know I’ll operate. I may not be able to run as good but operate,’” Malzahn said. “So I put him back in and he really gave us a spark and a shot in the arm. When it was 31-28, we had the momentum right there and it was a good ballgame.”

Dealing with a hamstring injury, the typically mobile Plumlee’s night was made more difficult by a relentless Tulane pass rush. The Green Wave decisively won the battle in the trenches with six sacks and nine tackles for loss, led by the heroics of defensive end Darius Hodges and outside linebacker Dorian Williams. With the Knights’ lack of dominance on the ground, the result was a far cry from UCF’s 38-31 November win in the same venue.

“We had a great plan, stopping the draw, stopping things like that, that they hurt us on in the previous game,” Hodges said. “I tip my hat to Plumlee. He’s a great quarterback... I’m proud of the way our d-line played and our linebackers played getting through to the quarterback.”

After falling in the AAC title game for the first and final time in the event’s eight-year history, UCF (9-4, 6-2 AAC) redirects its focus toward the postseason seeking its fourth 10-win season since 2017. The Knights’ bowl destination is yet to be determined, but they remain hungrier than ever for a victory in order to declare 2022 a successful season.

“What’s next is our bowl game,” Malzahn said. “We need to win a bowl game to get momentum for next year. You look at last year, we won a big bowl game. This year, we made the conference championship. We’re going in the right direction as a program. We’re disappointed right now, but the future’s really bright for our program.”

Tulane celebrates its AAC championship postgame at Yulman Stadium.
Kim Montuoro

Tulane emerged triumphant in its first-ever AAC Championship Game appearance and the celebration ensued at Yulman Stadium for nearly two hours after time exhausted on the game clock. The Green Wave are officially bound for the Cotton Bowl, which will be the program’s first New Year’s Six bowl in the College Football Playoff era. As Tulane prepares for its most important game of the 21st century, the Green Wave celebrate Saturday night with the right to call themselves ‘champions.’

“It’s safe to say everyone in our locker room had dreamed of this,” Wyatt said. “Playing for a conference championship and going on to play in the Cotton Bowl. Today, we had to lock in and focus, and the plays, they were just there.”