“Instant classic” may be an overused term these days, but there are truly no better words to describe what transpired in the Cotton Bowl between Tulane and USC on January 2.
Tulane and USC endured similar struggles in disappointing 2021 seasons, combing for a 6-18 record while falling well short of bowl eligibility. A New Year’s Six matchup between these programs seemed unlikely in September, but the Green Wave and Trojans strung together inspiring bounce-back campaigns, and the two teams carried lofty 11-2 records into AT&T Stadium for one of college football’s six most heralded bowl games.
USC and Tulane hadn’t settled things on the field since 1946, but this unlikely matchup proved to be an unforgettable showcase, forever etching a lasting association between these two programs. An offensive shootout favored USC for the majority of the contest, but Tulane responded with a furious 15-point comeback in the final four minutes and 30 seconds of action. Relying on improbable heroics on offense, defense, and special teams in a nail-biting crunch time atmosphere, Tulane edged USC, 46-45, to complete a signature win for the ages.
The AT&T Stadium confetti finally subsided, and the only thing that’s left is to determine where these teams wind up in the final AP Poll. Here are five final thoughts from the thrilling Cotton Bowl between Tulane and USC, which will be remembered in New Orleans for decades to come:
Tulane doesn’t win without Michael Pratt heroics
The day is September 4, 2021. The location is Norman, OK. The situation is 4th and 13 for a Tulane squad posing as heavy underdogs, trailing 40-35 to the No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners. Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt immediately gets forced out of the pocket by defensive end Nik Bonitto, who sacked Pratt on the prior play. Bonitto trips the quarterback and nearly takes him down again, but Pratt recovers and gains his footing with an illuminated pathway ahead. Upon seeing a defender near the first down marker, Pratt braces himself and launches forward with the ball tucked securely. The two collide, and he falls just short of the sticks, causing Tulane to miss a golden opportunity to knock off Lincoln Riley’s top 10 Sooners.
What Pratt didn’t realize at the time is a similar situation would arise 16 months later on the grand stage of the Cotton Bowl against Lincoln Riley’s top 10 USC Trojans. Just like the aforementioned Oklahoma game, Pratt’s Green Wave stood one touchdown away from a momentous victory. Facing a do-or-die 4th and 6, Pratt saw déjà vu. The now-junior quarterback escaped pressure, turned on the jets as he approached the first down marker, but this time, he powered past the defender and injected new life into Tulane. During the postgame interview session, Pratt referenced this parallel with the Oklahoma game, except this time, he delivered.
Pratt also faced a critical 4th and 10 four plays later. But this time, he didn’t call his own number. Rather he utilized his scrambling ability to maneuver outside the pocket, remained patient for routes to develop, and found an open Alex Bauman for a game-saving first down. Entering the Cotton Bowl, Bauman was a seldom used target with only five receptions on the year. But Pratt placed immense trust in him down the stretch of a New Year’s Six game, targeting the tight end four times on that final series. The final link-up between two resulted in the all-important winning touchdown — capping a Pratt-led drive which looked straight out of a movie.
A quick glance at the box score doesn’t do justice on how extraordinary and gutsy Pratt was in the Cotton Bowl. He completed just 8-of-17 passes, but those eight connections traveled 234 yards — averaging out to 29.3 yards per completion — and he delivered two touchdown passes in the victory. Pratt certainly didn’t shy away from contact when his team needed him most. Excluding sack yardage, the quarterback rushed for 103 yards on USC defense, and three of those runs generated key first downs.
Pratt isn’t the fastest quarterback in the conference, but the toughness he exhibits every time he tucks the ball makes him a more-than-viable rushing threat. Tulane wide receiver Jha’Quan Jackson stated Pratt has the “heart of a lion” postgame, and that heart was certainly demonstrated again and again on arguably the most important possession in Green Wave history.
Caleb Williams cemented his Heisman status
On December 10, thousands of players, coaches, athletic department staff, media, family members, and more conglomerated into Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York to watch the induction of the newest member into college football’s most prestigious fraternity — the Heisman Trophy ceremony. USC quarterback Caleb Williams was the runaway winner of the distinguished award, receiving 544 of the 929 possible first-place votes.
Williams, who followed head coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to Los Angeles last February, posted a spectacular season in every sense of the word. At the time of the Heisman presentation, the quarterback touted more than 4,000 passing yards on his résumé, showing off an impressive ratio of 37 touchdown passes to just four interceptions. He thrived as a runner as well with 10 rushing touchdowns and nearly 400 rushing yards in a single fall which saw USC improve from 4-8 to 11-2 heading into bowl season.
Despite the losing outcome in the Cotton Bowl, Williams’ first New Year’s Six outing might be his finest work to date. The quarterback was severely limited in his movements about the pocket in his previous matchup — a 47-24 loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game — due to a hamstring injury he suffered on a 59-yard run in the first half. With roughly a month to recover, Williams looked as spry as ever at AT&T Stadium.
The quarterback operated behind a shorthanded offensive line, deprived of All-Pac-12 selections Andrew Vorhees and Brett Neilon. Tulane rightfully brought loads of pressure to counter this disadvantage, but Williams’ ability to race around the pocket and extend plays neutralized the Green Wave’s blitzes. Williams didn’t take a single sack against a Tulane front fresh off a 6-sack performance in the AAC Championship Game. Instead, the Heisman winner scrambled to the point where it almost seemed like he was playing backyard football.
Williams showed an especially strong rapport with wide receiver Brenden Rice, who corralled six passes for 174 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the defeat. One of Williams’ completions to Rice was the epitome of a “Heisman moment” where he exhausted 12 seconds of time by just scrambling around on 3rd and 22. He remained patient, directed traffic, and delivered a beautiful strike to Rice just shy of the goal line. Patience was an ongoing theme of Williams’ play-style in Arlington, and he never looked frantic despite copious amounts of oncoming pressure.
Williams finished 37-of-52 with 462 passing yards and dished out a Cotton Bowl record five touchdowns. There was a rare interception mixed in, when he overlooked Tulane cornerback Jarius Monroe, who was perfectly positioned in zone defense in front of his target Kyle Ford. Even when factoring in this blemish, Williams’ performance against Tulane was simply a masterclass. USC never even punted due to the quarterback’s unrestrained success — especially in high-pressure situations. The Trojans finished 11-of-15 on third downs and 2-of-2 on fourth downs, with the majority of conversions stemming from Williams’ arm and ability to extend plays.
Sometimes Heisman Trophy debates can be held through a retrospective lens after bowl season concludes, but Williams proved to be a more-than-worthy winner of the award in the Cotton Bowl.
Tyjae Spears got better every single game
The opportunity for Tulane to clinch and host its first-ever AAC Championship Game was in sight when paying a visit to Cincinnati. Tyjae Spears rose to the occasion with a season-high 181 rushing yards in a winning effort.
The opportunity for Tulane to win its first-ever AAC Championship Game was in sight when UCF strolled into the Big Easy. Tyjae Spears responded by shattering his season-high in rushing yards with 199, elevating the Green Wave to an AAC title.
Finally, the opportunity for Tulane to win its first-ever BCS/New Year’s Six bowl was in sight against USC. Tyjae Spears yet again lived up to the moment by delivering the performance of a lifetime, garnering a season-best 205 rushing yards and a career-high four rushing touchdowns. Fittingly, Spears claimed Offensive MVP honors after putting on a clinic against the USC defense.
Tulane played a series of three critical games to close its 2022 storybook season, and a win was necessary in all three in order to finish the season with a coveted New Year’s Six trophy. One thing was consistent in each crucial win — Tyjae Spears rose beyond the call of duty.
The running back finished the season on a rampage. In each of his final eight games, he surpassed the 120-yard rushing threshold, tallying a total of 13 rushing touchdowns over that span. He seemingly became a stronger version of himself every week, breaking tackles to an unfathomable extent en route to AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors. Spears was the driving force behind Tulane’s final three wins, and the Green Wave averaged 39.3 points per game thanks to Spears’ 7.9 yards per carry in those three outings. After shattering his season-high in three consecutive games to end an unforgettable campaign at Tulane, Spears rode off into the sunset in optimal fashion and declared for the 2023 NFL Draft.
No evidence of USC defensive improvement one month later
USC stood one win away from its first College Football Playoff appearance ever. The Trojans found themselves entering conference championship weekend clinging onto a lofty No. 4 ranking. And after jumping out to a 17-3 lead in a revenge game against Utah, USC seemed destined to claim a playoff spot and become the first Pac-12 representative in the event since 2016.
However, the defense completely fell apart versus the Utes. Utah broke 24 tackles en route to a 47-24 victory in Las Vegas, stringing together home run play after home run play in the second half. USC allowed 533 yards of offense while surrendering 9.1 yards per pass and 6.4 yards per rush.
Defensive shortcomings in the Pac-12 Championship Game were nothing new for the Trojans, which allowed 35+ points in five of seven games prior to the Cotton Bowl. USC entered the Tulane matchup wielding the nation’s 101st ranked defense in terms of yards per game, ranking in the nation’s bottom 20 pass defenses. So, how did the Trojans rattle off 11 wins with such defensive numbers? Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s unit boasted a sensational, FBS-best turnover margin of +22, accumulating 28 turnovers while only coughing the ball up six times. With a notable emphasis on generating interceptions, rips, and peanut punches, the Trojan defense played an overaggressive style all year, which neutralized the defensive woes observed throughout the first 12 games of the season.
But in the Cotton Bowl, USC failed to win the turnover battle. Caleb Williams tossed one interception in the first half, and Tyjae Spears coughed up one fumble in the fourth quarter to deadlock the teams in the takeaway department. Thus, the Trojans needed to rely on tackling ability and prevention of big plays, and neither were accomplished in a 46-45 defeat.
USC hogged time of possession by controlling the ball for roughly 40 minutes of the contest. The Trojans ran 84 plays compared to the Green Wave’s 52. Yet, Tulane still posted 539 yards on those 52 plays, averaging a ridiculous 10.4 yards per snap — amounting to 29.3 yards per completion and 9.0 yards per rush. The Green Wave didn’t even target deep downfield or force anything explosive. They simply found receivers in one-on-one coverage and relied on them to make one USC defender miss in order to generate these explosive plays. And in the rushing department, Spears broke an onslaught of tackles on his way to three breakaway runs of 30+ yards.
Once Tulane benefited from a late safety, USC’s defense was granted an opportunity to record one stop and salvage the game. But the Trojans permitted two fourth down conversions during a 12-play, 66-yard drive, allowing the defensive issues that plagued them throughout the latter half of the season to reappear in the Cotton Bowl. USC has all the offensive tools at its disposal to contend for the College Football Playoff, but defensive issues are one aspect of the team which must be addressed during the 2023 offseason.
What a game, what a season, what a story
The 2022 college football season will always hold an important place in the heart of Tulane fans, and the unfathomable journey the Green Wave enjoyed this fall was solidified by the final result of the Cotton Bowl.
One season prior, the Green Wave were marred from the get-go by Hurricane Ida, which severely impacted the New Orleans area. The team spent the majority of September 2021 living in a Birmingham hotel with limited luggage and food options available. These forced nomadic conditions ultimately took a toll on the team in the standings, and the Green Wave finished 2-10 despite a handful of one-score losses. But it did build camaraderie, which only fortified the team for 2022.
The key contributors from 2021 to 2022 didn’t change. Tulane relied on a similar cast of talent that struggled through a 2-10 season in 2022, and that continuity paid off. After a strong start which featured a win over eventual Big 12 champion Kansas State, the Green Wave attained their first ranking since 1998. Adversity struck throughout the season in a stunning loss to Southern Miss and again in a thrilling overtime victory over Houston which relied on the heroics of third-string quarterback Kai Horton, yet Tulane kept its course. The Green Wave snapped a Cincinnati 32-game home winning streak to qualify for their first AAC Championship Game, and in that title game, they needed to upend a UCF team which gashed them three weeks prior in New Orleans. This time, Tulane reversed the result and defeated the Knights in a 45-28 wire-to-wire win, earning a conference title and crashing the coveted party of the New Year’s Six.
But unlike the four previous AAC champions, Tulane didn’t let its accomplishments conclude upon winning the conference title. The Green Wave initially put up a valiant effort in the Cotton Bowl by trading blows with a juggernaut USC offense for three quarters, but a USC field goal with 4:30 seemed to be the heart-wrenching dagger to end a spectacular season. At that point, the Trojans led 45-30, except Tulane dominated that final 4:30 in the most unlikely manner. By piling on 16 unanswered points in that limited timeframe, Tulane erased a 15+ point deficit in the final five minutes — when teams in that situation were 1-1,162 in the last five seasons prior to the Cotton Bowl.
From completing the greatest single-season turnaround in college football history to staging an unlikely 15-point comeback in the final 4:30 of game time, the 2022 Tulane Green Wave embodied the themes of resiliency and perseverance in every manner possible. It was an unforgettable season filled with trophies, confetti, and escalated fan support in New Orleans. The story of this overlooked team of underdogs powering through adversity and piecing together a season for the ages is one reason we love college football.