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2022 Cotton Bowl media day recap: Five storylines headed into the Tulane vs. USC matchup

Lincoln Riley, Willie Fritz, and the USC and Tulane players discuss several key storylines headed into Monday’s Cotton Bowl.

Steve Helwick

The 87th Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic features a battle between the AAC champion Tulane Green Wave and Pac-12 runner-up USC Trojans.

This is the first New Year’s Six appearance for head coach Willie Fritz and the Green Wave — a program in the midst of its most spectacular season of the 21st century, producing an 11-2 record fresh off a 2-10 finish in 2021. Meanwhile, both USC head coach Lincoln Riley and the Trojans’ organization have experienced New Year’s Six bowls in their recent history, but this 2022 season featured an impressive turnaround from 4-8 to 11-2.

The Cotton Bowl kicks off at 1 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. CT at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX on ESPN. This is the penultimate New Year’s Six bowl to transpire in 2022 and it comes with a bevy of storylines:

Healthy Heisman hamstring

On the night of Dec. 10 in New York, USC quarterback Caleb Williams took center stage to claim the most prestigious individual award in college football. The quarterback won the 2022 Heisman Trophy after a standout season featuring 4,075 passing yards and 37 touchdown strikes to just four interceptions. However, last time out in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Williams was hampered by a pulled hamstring after breaking loose for a 59-yard run. The All-American quarterback received ample time to heal though, and he should be back to speed for Monday’s Cotton Bowl.

“He is ready to go,” Riley said. “He has progressed maybe a little faster than what we anticipated. Certainly, very fortunate on our part that we had the opportunity to have a month, really, before this game. I mean, had it been even two weeks, I doubt he would have been available. And so that extra time has helped. And he’s practiced well really with no limitations, and we expect that he’ll play very well.”

NCAA Football: PAC-12 Football Championship-Southern California at Utah
Caleb Williams won the Heisman Trophy in his first season as USC’s starting quarterback after following head coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Williams’ month-long progress on his hamstring should unlock more elements of USC’s offense. In the Pac-12 Championship Game with limited mobility, the Heisman winner absorbed a season-high seven sacks and was noticeably limited inside the tackle box. While his passing numbers remained impressive against Utah, he’ll now display more effectiveness on the run — like he did for the majority of the year when racking up 372 yards and 10 touchdowns as a rusher.

“He can extend plays,” Fritz said. “I heard somebody comparing him to Patrick Mahomes, and I’m an old Kansas City guy. That’s a fair comparison. He is unbelievable. A lot of times guys get out of the pocket and can’t throw the ball accurately. And he can do that time and time again.”

Even though Williams returns with a rejuvenated state of health, USC still deals with important injury absences on the offense. First Team All-Pac-12 left tackle Andrew Vorhees continues to rehab an injury from the regular season finale as he prepares for the 2023 NFL Draft, while Second Team All-Pac-12 center Brett Neilon was carted off the field in the conference championship game with a devastating ankle injury. Neither star lineman will be available for the Cotton Bowl, forcing the Trojans to dig into the depth chart in the trenches.

“They’re certainly — they’re two big losses,” Riley said. “Certainly saw a little bit of that with not having (Andrew) Vorhees for the championship game and losing Brett Neilon, who’s been a cornerstone of this team and offensive line was a big loss as well. I think we’ve benefited from having time, being able to bank a lot of practices with these groups as we’ve had to shuffle some guys around to make it work. And it certainly would have been a much bigger challenge on anormal game week or normal seven‑day window, especially when you’re playing a really good defense like we’re getting ready to play.”

‘Spear’heading the run game

Tulane running back Tyjae Spears claimed AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors in early December. He amassed 1,376 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns heading into bowl season — 45 rushing yards away from the second-best single season in Tulane history.

“Tyjae’s just a different type of player to be honest,” Tulane right tackle Rashad Green said. “He gets back there with the ball in his hands, and it’s like magic. If we give him the ball, we have a great chance of winning any game, anytime, anywhere.”

Among running backs with 200 carries this season, Spears wields the fourth best rushing average in the country at 6.5, proving his ability to generate breakaway runs. His break tackle ability is one of his calling cards, and shedding contact with ease was one of the attributes which led to a season-high 199 rushing yards in the AAC Championship Game win over UCF.

“He’s an explosive runner,” USC inside linebacker Shane Lee said. “He’s fast, he’s strong, he’s shifty. We have to pursue well, tackle well, and be physical.”

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Championship-Central Florida at Tulane
Tyjae Spears produced a season-high 199 rushing yards against UCF in the conference championship game, extending his streak of 120-yard rushing games to seven.
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Spears is only getting better as time progresses. The 199-yard performance in the AAC title game signified the second-straight week he shattered his season-high. Just one week prior, Spears posted 181 yards in a crucial win over a ranked Cincinnati squad. In his past seven outings, he has crossed the 120-yard threshold seven times while tallying 10 total touchdowns over that timeframe. Spears credits his in-season improvement to an increased understanding of his role, as well as the five men up front who serve as his shield.

“It’s just knowing my role on offense and knowing what I’ve gotta do in order for the team to thrive, and having the help around me,” Spears said. “Those guys improve every week too.”

Tulane primarily generates its offense through the ground game, but Spears’ sudden success has allowed the aerial attack to thrive as well. While Spears posted a season-high last time out, his quarterback Michael Pratt achieved a personal best as well. Keeping UCF honest in the run game in the AAC Championship Game allowed Pratt to explode for a career-high 394 passing yards to go along with four touchdowns. Thus, when Spears dominates, the offense kicks into a higher degree of versatility.

“Tyjae, he and our offensive line make it significantly easier for us,” Tulane wide receiver Shae Wyatt said. “When Tyjae gets it moving, when the backs are feeling themselves, it makes it a lot easier for the pass game to open up. To buy into the blocking like we do, ultimately, when it comes later in the game when we have a shot play called or even if it’s a medium call, it’s there. All facets of the game we’re trying to it.”

How the Grinch improved defense

USC grasped firmly onto a No. 4 ranking in the College Football Playoff standings heading into conference championship weekend. One win over Utah would catapult the Trojans into their first-ever College Football Playoff appearance. But a 17-3 lead over the Utes was quickly flipped into a 47-24 defeat where USC couldn’t string together a defensive stop. Utah produced 533 yards of offense in a second half explosion, and the Trojans struggled with tackling in open space. After witnessing 24 broken tackles against the unit, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has instilled in his players better techniques and scheme to prevent such a performance from transpiring in the Cotton Bowl.

“We just evaluated that game, learned from our mistakes, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure we don’t repeat them,” free safety Bryson Shaw said on the tackling effort in the Pac-12 title game. “We expect to make those plays. We don’t believe in getting lucky and getting the football popping out. We believe in making those plays happen and it’s something we really stress every day in practice.”

While the USC defense ranks 101st in scoring defense with allotments of 27.9 points (81st in FBS) and 266.5 passing yards (113th in FBS) per game, there are still elements of this unit which are unmatched on a national basis. USC forces turnovers at one of the highest rates in the country, securing 19 interceptions and nine forced fumbles this season. Mixing that success with the offense’s lack of giveaways, it produces the best turnover margin in college football at +22. No other team wields a better margin than +16.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Southern California
USC strong safety Calen Bullock led the team with five interceptions on the season, serving as a crucial contributor to the +22 turnover margin.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

“We’ve always put a big emphasis on ripping out the ball, forcing turnovers, interceptions, tips and overthrows all throughout the spring and everything,” USC defensive end Nick Figueroa said. “That’s definitely a big point of emphasis for us — playing fast, finishing at the ball because even if you force a fumble, if you don’t have other guys to get to the ball, there’s no benefit there. Moving forward, there’s lots of stuff to improve on. Hopefully we can maintain that turnover margin the next couple years while the defense continues to improve.”

One major proponent of USC’s astronomically high turnover margin is junior defensive end Tuli Tuipulotu. The star lineman produced his second consecutive First Team All-Pac-12 season while securing the honors for the conference’s defensive player of the year. Tuipulotu registered two forced fumbles this season, but it’s the pressure he brings which causes a litany of interceptions and fumbles. He leads the entire FBS with 12.5 sacks and ranks third in the country in tackles for loss with 21.

“He’s a great player, bigger body,” Tulane right tackle Rashad Green said of Tulipulotu. “I feel like we have a great scheme set up to work him and work the whole defense. If we stick to what we have and our gameplan and what we’ve been working on over the past month, we have a good shot at getting things covered up.”

Putting the icing on improvement

The Tulane Green Wave are AAC champions and Cotton Bowl bound. In a 2022 full of compelling storylines, watching this program come together to rattle off 11 wins and win their first conference crown of the 21st century is nothing short of mind-blowing — considering this Tulane team posted a 2-10 record a year ago with roughly the same coaching staff and cast of contributors.

“This is essentially the same team as last year — and we lost so many games last year, like four or five games, by under a touchdown,” Tulane tight end Will Wallace said. “We all knew it was there. We all knew we had the potential. We just had to put it together and buy in within one another and that’s what we did all offseason. This is really a credit to the offseason.”

Posting a 2-10 record wasn’t simply the result of Tulane’s on-field play. The Green Wave were plagued with external factors well out of anybody’s control. They were slated to open the season with back-to-back home games, but due to damage caused by Hurricane Ida in New Orleans, the football team relocated to Birmingham for a month.

“You’re always on the road, you don’t know what’s next,” Wallace said. “When we went to Birmingham for the hurricane, they told us to pack for two days. We were there for 30 days. We had no clothes. We were Uber Eats-ing every meal. We were working out at a high school. It was really hard but it made us really close to our teammates too.”

NCAA Football: Tulane at Oklahoma
Will Wallace and the Green Wave played their 2021 opener, originally slated at home, in Norman, OK. Tulane fell 40-35 to Lincoln Riley’s Sooners.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Building camaraderie through Hurricane Ida only made this veteran squad stronger, and the benefits from the adversity are finally coming to fruition. The team was able to shed the frustrations from a rock-bottom record in 2021 to rattle off 11 victories. Now, Tulane is one the grand stage of the New Year’s Six — one Cotton Bowl win away from tying the winningest season in program history.

“It was definitely frustrating in a lot of different ways but everyone flipped that switch and had that mindset of what we need to improve on, what we need to do to get better. I think we had a really talented team last year and I think we showcased that in the first game against Oklahoma, but this offseason, coming back after last season and just dialing in on those little details and the leadership and accountability of everybody — that’s what’s led us to the success we’ve had this year.”

Tulane isn’t the only participant in this Cotton Bowl that dealt with tumultuous times in 2021. The USC Trojans posted their worst record in 30 years by faring 4-8. The program shook things up over the offseason with the hire of four-time Big 12 champion head coach Lincoln Riley and the assembly of the nation’s most talented transfer portal class, which included the likes of Caleb Williams, Mario Williams, Brenden Rice, Shane Lee, and Mekhi Blackmon.

“This has been a different challenge and we knew it would be coming here,” Riley said. “And I think the ability to — for a team to rally and come together certainly in the way that we have, and to be able to experience some of the success has been great... It’s been a fun season. As fun a season as I’ve had coaching in a long time. And I think a lot of our staff members would say the same thing and certainly don’t want it to end. But it’s obviously a great opportunity to try to finish on a high note.”

Although the majority of USC’s starters are first-year transfers, there are plenty of longer tenured Trojans that experienced a rocky ride over the past several seasons in Los Angeles. USC last participated in a bowl game in 2019, and the Trojans haven’t claimed postseason hardware since the 2016 season. But as the team chases its first 12-win campaign since 2008, seniors like defensive end Nick Figueroa reflect on the instant turnaround the program has enjoyed under Riley and his staff.

“Getting here, and then not having the success that’s normally associated with this school and what’s expected as a team representing this school — those times were a little bit hard, but I’m excited to have this opportunity here and have the season we’ve had to get this thing turned around,” Figueroa said. “(Running back) Travis Dye said, ‘This year’s been about planting the seeds, even if we don’t get to enjoy the shade.’ And I like that quote. It’s been nice to be part of ushering in the new era.”

NCAA Football: Rice at Southern California
USC defensive end Nick Figueroa is one of the veteran Trojan players yet to win a bowl game. The Trojans defeated Penn State in the 2016 Rose Bowl, 52-49, for their last postseason win.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Although 2022 USC is remarkably better than the 2021 squad which couldn’t sniff a bowl game last December, there is some disappointment with missing out on the College Football Playoff. Colorado transfer wide receiver Brenden Rice is thrilled about the opportunity to play in the Cotton Bowl, but after being a win away from qualifying for the playoff, he believes the standard for the program has already skyrocketed.

“As for going to a New Year’s Six bowl, this is on the bottom end of what I expected,” Rice said. “I expect this team to do a lot more. We should go on to get a championship very soon. I’m holding us up to that.”

Everything’s bigger in Texas

The site of the Cotton Bowl is one of the grandest in the sport of football. The New Year’s Six bowl transpires at the state-of-the-art venue known as AT&T Stadium, which is most renowned for housing the Dallas Cowboys. Whether it’s the unique lighting, the artificial turf finish, the dome setting, or the 172 x 60 foot videoboard hovering above the playing surface, Tulane and USC players acknowledge this atmosphere presents differences from the typical college football setting.

“It’s definitely different,” Rice said. “You can see how the light affects and the Jumbotron, and everything — it’s so big and it’s just a lot. You’ve got to come here and adjust and be focused. You can’t focus on the outside distractions and when it’s gametime, you’ve got to be ready to go.”

Not all participants in this game are first-time visitors to AT&T Stadium. USC wide receiver Tahj Washington played several snaps as a true freshman in the 2019 Cotton Bowl when his Memphis Tigers battled Penn State. Washington feels like a veteran of the Cotton Bowl experience this time around and revels in the opportunity to return to the stadium in Arlington, TX.

“It’s definitely familiar, it’s bringing back a lot of good memories, and it’s just fun to be back here in my home state,” USC wide receiver Tahj Washington said. “You’ve gotta love practicing at AT&T every day. Can’t wait to play in it Monday.”

Another Trojan well-acquainted with the AT&T Stadium experience is inside linebacker Shane Lee. Transferring in from Alabama, Lee is spending his third consecutive bowl season in Arlington. He sports a 2-0 postseason record in the home of the Cowboys, winning the relocated 2020 Rose Bowl over Notre Dame and the 2021 Cotton Bowl over Cincinnati.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 31 CFP Semifinal - Goodyear Cotton Bowl - Cincinnati v Alabama
USC inside linebacker Shane Lee won the 2021 Cotton Bowl with Alabama at AT&T Stadium. This will be his third straight bowl season in Arlington, TX.
Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“It’s starting to feel like home to me now, but it’s a great venue, great place to be,” Lee said. “Just through practice even this week, having the natural light mixed in with the lights itself in the stadium — it’s a little tricky when you’re looking up and locating a ball. Playing on turf is a little different, playing indoors, but it’s still football. Practice gets that out of the way.”

As is with all bowl games, there are seniors set to make their final appearance in the realm of college athletics. And for players that have been through the ups and downs, what better place to end a college career than in the stadium dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World?”

“In the realm of preparation, there’s nothing different, but the stage is magnificent,” Wallace said. “The Cotton Bowl’s been truly great. This is what you dream of. This is our national championship.”