Resiliency. It’s a word that has come to define the Tulane Green Wave football program captained by seventh-year head coach Willie Fritz. The thought of Tulane playing in a major bowl game seemed unfathomable at times, especially one year after posting a 2-10 record.
But with a culture built on this foundation of resiliency, Fritz’s bunch from New Orleans persevered through it all. They powered through the accumulation of heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss in a rock-bottom season. They pushed through the inconvenience and the hardships caused by the damage inflicted in New Orleans due to Hurricane Ida in 2021. They endured a month-long stay at a Birmingham hotel with limited luggage available and meals delivered via Uber Eats.
And on January 2, 2023, with the opportunity to tie the winningest season in program history, Tulane needed that resiliency to show one more time.
“The words we were saying, it was going to be like whatever it took, whatever it took,” running back Tyjae Spears said. “However it looked, we were going to get it done. And we never lost faith on them. Telling the guys the whole time and they were telling me, we’re going to still win this game. We’re going to win this game. We’re going to win this game.”
Tulane took the grandiose stage of the 87th Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on Monday afternoon, battling the USC Trojans in the program’s biggest game of the 21st century. The bright stadium lights, the massive videoboard, and the state-of-the-art atmosphere served as the setting of Tulane’s bout with the Pac-12 runner-up. However, the lights weren’t too bright. The Green Wave went punch-for-punch with Lincoln Riley’s juggernaut offense from the opening kickoff, but a 43-yard field goal with 4:30 remaining pushed Tulane to the brink of defeat. Down 45-30 against an explosive offensive attack led by a Heisman Trophy winner, erasing such a deficit seemed out of the realm of possibility.
“During halftime, (inside linebacker) Nick (Anderson) was praying and everything, and he spoke this into existence,” wide receiver Jha’Quan Jackson said. “He said after this game, we’re going to be 12-2. And that’s what we did. We came and finished the game.”
But the culture of resiliency the program frequently preaches prevailed in a stunning 46-45 Cotton Bowl victory. After the Trojans’ field goal split the uprights, Tulane flew down the field in two plays spanning 23 seconds to slice the daunting deficit to one score. Then, fortune swung in the Green Wave’s favor. The ensuing kickoff was muffed by USC wide receiver Mario Williams at the 2-yard line, pushing the Trojans’ backs against the wall while clinging onto a 45-37 lead. Two plays after the crucial error, Tulane nose tackle Patrick Jenkins weaved through USC’s shorthanded offensive line and stuffed Austin Jones in the end zone for a safety. At that point, the energy in AT&T Stadium tangibly shifted and a unforeseen level of volume resonated throughout the venue.
“It was one of the greatest moments of my life,” Jenkins said on the stadium atmosphere after the safety. “It still doesn’t feel real to me. I’m just trying to pinch myself and wake up. I knew it. I knew when that happened, the offense was gonna score.”
The entire Tulane bench broke out in fervent celebration, waving towels, jumping on benches, and feeding off the violent roar of the crowd. Trailing by six with one drive to pull off a shocking comeback, a sudden sense of belief reverberated throughout the crowd and field alike. That belief was placed in the hands of quarterback Michael Pratt, who was thrust into several do-or-die situations on the critical drive. And Pratt was simply built for the moment. Encountering a 4th and 6 on the final series, Pratt escaped pressure and utilized his mobility to inject new life into the Tulane offense. On a subsequent 4th and 10, Pratt fired across his body to find seldom used tight end Alex Bauman — who had five collegiate catches entering the Cotton Bowl — on a 24-yard pickup to prevent the Green Wave from succumbing to the Trojans.
“It was almost exactly like the Oklahoma game last year,” Pratt said regarding Tulane’s final drive. “We had one opportunity to drive down the field and win the game, and last year, it was 4th and 10 and I was two feet away from getting the first down. (USC) covered us pretty good, I saw a lane, and I was able to get on that fourth down.”
A 24-yard strike to Duece Watts then positioned Tulane at the 6-yard line with 18 seconds of life remaining on the clock. On 2nd and goal, Pratt dropped back and reconnected with Bauman in one-on-one coverage in the end zone. Although it was initially ruled an incompletion, the replay showed the tight end cradling the pigskin with his arm serving as the barrier between the leather and the turf. Moments later, a vociferous Tulane crowd celebrated the overturn of the call which provided Tulane the tying touchdown.
“We made a streak call and I knew I could run a three-seam,” Bauman said. “And the MIKE was playing the low inside. So I had to attack him across his face. And Pratt put a perfect ball where I can make a play on it. And kept my hand under the ball, and scored. I knew right away that I scored.”
Valentino Ambrosio strolled onto the turf and drilled the all-important extra point to seal the 46-45 victory over USC. Nine seconds of game time later, a party ensued throughout the Tulane faithful in Arlington, TX in recognition of the historic win.
“I’m excited. Everyone’s excited,” Jackson said. “I can’t even express myself. It’s not going to hit me just like the conference championship back in Yulman Stadium. It didn’t hit me until two months later. Me and Tyjae were roommates and I just looked at him every day like, ‘Did it hit you yet?’”
Tulane’s 16-0 scoring run in the final 4:30 minutes ultimately powered the Green Wave to victory in the New Year’s Six setting. But the Green Wave’s 46-point outburst wasn’t just a last-ditch effort — rather, Tulane produced explosive plays throughout the entirety of the contest. Generating many of these chunk plays was Cotton Bowl Offensive MVP Tyjae Spears, who extended his streak of 120-yard rushing games to seven while resetting his new season-high for the third-consecutive outing. The AAC Offensive Player of the Year evaded tackle after tackle and posted 205 rushing yards on the USC defense, finding the end zone on four separate occasions in a performance for the ages.
“I can’t do it all by myself,” Spears said. “I have an amazing o-line. They come to work every day. They’re the hardest-working group on the team. So them pushing me every day, we compete with each other. Me and Pratt versus (offensive tackle) Joey Claybrook and (center) Sincere Haynesworth every day, we see who is going to work harder. But my drive, it’s now. I’m from a place where I’m trying to get out of, and I don’t want to go back to it. So that’s what drives me every day.”
Pratt only completed eight passes in the victory, but the weight of each completion was magnificent. Seven of those eight connections resulted in first downs or touchdowns, and the average completion exceeded 29 yards in a 234-yard showing. Tulane didn’t target home run plays downfield, instead, the Green Wave produced their significant pickups by finding receivers in one-on-one coverage and relying on them to make one defender miss. Such was the case on an 87-yard connection to Jha’Quan Jackson which kept Tulane afloat in the first half and a 59-yard delivery to Duece Watts which proved vital down the final 5-minute stretch.
As dominant as Tulane’s offense was at AT&T Stadium, USC’s fifth-ranked scoring offense always chirped back with an answer. The Trojans built a 14-0 lead and maintained the upper hand until the final nine seconds due to the constant playmaking of quarterback Caleb Williams. The Heisman Trophy winner lived up to his lofty designation, completing 37-of-52 attempts for 462 yards and a Cotton Bowl record five touchdown strikes. Significant recovery from an early December hamstring injury allowed him to extend plays on countless occasions, and Tulane failed to record one sack on the shifty gunslinger.
“Well, there’s a reason why he won the Heisman Trophy,” Fritz said. “He’s a pretty good player. He’s hard to get down. I don’t know how many sacks we almost had. With him, we had a good group of receivers. We were trying to keep him in the pocket as best we can. And it’s always tough when you haven’t played for a month and you get out there and play. Some guys probably tackle better than other guys in the ballgame. And some guys had a little bit tougher time tackling in the ballgame.”
Williams operated without his premier target in Jordan Addison, but USC’s receiving corps still displayed impressive depth. The quarterback showing incredible patience when maneuvering about the pocket produced several highlight reel worthy completions. Brenden Rice made a handful of spectacular catches on extended plays, and the Colorado transfer receiver attained 174 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a standout performance.
Due to the heroics of Williams and his receiving corps — which saw 10 different players record a reception — USC converted on nine of its first 10 third down attempts and finished 11-for-15 on the afternoon. The first two times the Trojans failed in a third down situation, they ultimately succeeded on the following fourth down to move the sticks. Tulane’s defense failed to force a single punt throughout the contest, and producing stops was an ardent task for the unit led by Cotton Bowl Defensive MVP Dorian Williams.
“It was tough in the first half,” Williams said. “Seeing it on film and then playing against it is two different things. And I felt like our play, it wasn’t the best in the first half. And then second half, I told the guys, I said, ‘Man, let’s go out and just play football.’ I felt like we were all just playing two stiff, man, too tight. Just trying not to make any mistakes. I said, man, let’s go out there and make plays. That’s something we all knew we could do.”
The Green Wave forced one critical stop in the second quarter. Holding onto a 14-7 lead, Williams attempted to link up with wide receiver Kyle Ford down the sideline, but First Team All-AAC cornerback Jarius Monroe interrupted the route and snagged the ball in zone coverage. It was an incredibly rare turnover by USC, which entered Monday leading the FBS in turnover margin at a +22, due to coughing the ball up just six times all season. Monroe’s interception immediately cashed in for points, since Jackson’s 87-yard touchdown reception transpired one play later.
“The message all week has been turnover margin,” Monroe said. “We want to create turnovers and that was the goal — also with the safety from Patrick Jenkins who played a great game. I give it to my teammates. If my teammates aren’t over top and blitzing and rushing the quarterback, then I don’t get the opportunity to make that play. It was a big turnover in the game.”
USC responded with a takeaway of its own in the third quarter when Spears fumbled in a 42-30 ballgame. The Trojans had been extremely reliant on turnovers all season, especially considering their defense ranked 101st nationally in terms of yards surrendered per game. Thus, a net zero in the turnover margin exposed other elements of USC’s defense. They yielded 539 yards of offense to the Green Wave, and Tulane’s shocking comeback was made possible by the litany of explosive plays allowed by the Trojans.
“It’s pretty brutal. We worked super hard over a month and don't have anything to show for it,” USC defensive end Nick Figueroa said. “After the game, we’re like, ‘Man, how did we let that one slip away?’ But we didn’t get the stops we needed in the second half. We didn’t play very well.”
USC became just the second FBS team since 2018 to squander a lead of 15 points or greater in the final five minutes of action. Per ESPN, FBS teams were 1-1,162 prior to the electrifying Cotton Bowl finish.
“It’s as tough a loss as I can remember in my entire career,” Riley said. “Really wanted to win this game. And we actually put ourselves in a phenomenal position to get it done. And then all three sides right there at the end with the dropped kickoff and the safety, and then not getting the stops that we needed defensively down the stretch. I mean, all three sides contributed to it.”
Completing the in-game turnaround from 45-30 to 46-45 in the offensive clinic allowed Tulane to manufacture an even greater turnaround. By finishing with a 12-2 record one year after faring 2-10, Tulane officially claims the greatest single-season improvement in college football season. With a devout audience decked in olive green and blue serving as the backdrop, the Green Wave players, coaches, and staff enjoyed a confetti-filled coronation of one of the program’s greatest achievements.
“It just was very surreal man,” Monroe said. “Laying on the ground, I stared up at the ceiling and I just thank God. It’s a blessing to have these opportunities.”
Emotional hugs ran rampant, confetti angels were concocted, and the trophy was passed around from player to player — soaking in a moment which seemed impossible after the result of the 2021 season. But if there’s anything observed about Fritz’s program in Monday’s historic Cotton Bowl triumph, it was the unrelenting resolve they exhibit at all moments.
“It’s a huge win for the program,” Fritz said. “Huge win for the university. Huge win for the city. We represent New Orleans. We represent Tulane University. We represent our football program. And I think we’ve seen this year what a great football season and competing at a high level can do for an institution. So I’m just very proud to be a part of it.”