After the dust settled Saturday, only one AAC team remained on the podium of college football’s 33 remaining undefeated teams. Not preseason ranked Cincinnati, nor preseason ranked Houston. And it wasn’t any of the frequent AP Poll crashers in UCF, Memphis, or SMU.
The lone unbeaten in the league is Tulane. The same Tulane team that posted a 2-10 record a season ago has already surpassed its 2021 win total in an inspiring 3-0 start. The Green Wave stormed into Manhattan, KS and exited with a 17-10 upset over a Kansas State squad fresh off a 40-12 win over Missouri. By completing the upset, Tulane clinched its first 3-0 start since the 1998 season when it finished 12-0 and drew a No. 7 ranking in the final AP Poll.
What did we learn from the statement win by Willie Fritz and the Green Wave? Here are three takeaways from Saturday’s defensive slugfest in the plains:
Tulane’s fourth down run defense was insanely good
Tulane essentially won this game by denying Kansas State on fourth down. Not once, not twice, not three times, but on four occasions. All four stops were by virtue of a relentless run defense.
On the majority of these stops, the Green Wave defensive line provided enough pushback in the trenches to allow second and third level tacklers to fly in and make a play. The most impressive part about these stops was Tulane’s reliable tackling ability. The Green Wave linebackers and safeties didn’t whiff at all, coming in hot each time to hammer the ball carrier.
On one occasion (mid-2nd quarter), Tulane was tasked with stopping the 5’6”, 176 pound Deuce Vaughn, a 2021 consensus All-American with a low center of gravity and typically one of the best tackle-shedding abilities in college football. On two occasions (early-3rd quarter and mid-4th quarter), the Green Wave sniffed out runs by quarterback Adrian Martinez. And on the other occasion (late-3rd quarter), they stuffed the 6’1”, 212 pound power back DJ Giddens at the line of scrimmage.
(2/4 Lance Robinson with a big-time play against his old team) pic.twitter.com/NSbZEclhwP— #WARDAWGZ appreciator (@MrCatsPatrick) September 18, 2022
(4/4 Nick Anderson plays the speed option pitch perfectly, Patrick Jenkins finishes the deal)— #WARDAWGZ appreciator (@MrCatsPatrick) September 18, 2022
Inside linebacker Nick Anderson was the hero on two of these Kansas State fourth down failures, most notably blowing up a speed option on the Wildcats’ final fourth down attempt of the contest. While the play unfolded, he committed long enough to Vaughn to prevent Martinez from pitching it to the star running back and then wrapped up the quarterback in the backfield to welcome Tulane’s offense back to the field.
All four stops transpired in plus territory for Kansas State, and because of the relentless defensive execution, the Wildcats only managed 10 points in their home stadium.
Pratt’s improved mobility bolsters offense
Quarterback Michael Pratt burst onto the scene as a true freshman in 2020, guiding Tulane to a 4-2 finish while accounting for more touchdowns than any other first-year player in the country. But the Boca Raton native primarily made a name for himself with his pocket passing abilities, accounting for 20 touchdowns through the air in each of his first two seasons as a starter.
The passing attack didn’t work for Tulane on Saturday, however, so Pratt reinvented his game to a level previously unforeseen. The quarterback registered a team-best and career-high 87 yards on the ground, exhibiting his mobility on a series of effective runs. Tulane only strung together three scoring drives all afternoon. The first one was sparked by a 13-yard run from the quarterback, the second featured a 24-yard scamper, and Pratt broke free for runs of 11 and 21 yards on the Green Wave’s go-ahead touchdown sequence in the late fourth quarter.
Not much worked offensively for Tulane, which finished 1-of-12 on third downs. But the awareness of Pratt to take off and pick up the yards the defense allowed kept the sticks moving when the Green Wave were in desperate need of production. Through three contests in 2022, Pratt is 13 yards shy of his 2021 total and he averages an impressive 6.3 yards per carry — after collecting just 1.7 yards per attempt as a rusher across 2020 and 2021. With this dimension of mobility added to the Green Wave’s offense, Fritz and Co. have an additional option to rely on when the offense is in a funk.
The AAC is wide open — why not Tulane?
When SMU failed to execute on the goal line Saturday night at Maryland, it ensured the AAC would only feature one team in pursuit of an undefeated 2022 season. Now Tulane stands one victory over Southern Miss away from finishing its non-conference slate unscathed before the commencement of league play on Sept. 30.
Although the AAC made history by garnering multiple teams in the preseason AP Top 25 for the first time ever (excluding 2020 when Big Ten, Pac-12, Mountain West, and MAC teams were excluded from the preseason poll), the conference currently features zero ranked teams. Of the reigning AAC Championship Game participants, Cincinnati dropped its opener to Arkansas and Houston already matched its loss total from 2021 by falling to Texas Tech and Kansas in back-to-back contests. Additional contenders such as UCF and SMU dropped heartbreakers to Louisville and Maryland, respectively.
That being said, Tulane appears to fit in the equation as contenders. The Green Wave survived a massive test in Manhattan by suffocating Kansas State’s offense to 4.8 yards per pass, 4.4 yards per rush, 2-of-15 on third downs, and 1-of-5 on fourth downs. Through a quarter of the regular season, Tulane allows just 6.7 points per game while fielding the nation’s No. 1 pass defense — and the team isn’t even relying on an exorbitantly high turnover rate, obtaining a middle-of-the-road four takeaways thus far.
Yes, the offense still has work to do after finishing with a 50 percent completion rate, losing the turnover battle 2-0, and posting rather low outputs in both the rushing and passing departments. But like Cincinnati when it first started making noise in 2018 under Luke Fickell, this Tulane team has the defensive footprint to thrive on a weekly basis in the AAC, and with the conference this wide open, why not the Green Wave?