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Tulane catches fire in second half, upending Memphis 31-21 in battle of AAC titans

Makhi Hughes’ 130 yards and two key interceptions lead Green Wave to crucial conference victory over Tigers.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Memphis Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Tulane entered the season as the class of the American Athletic Conference. The Green Wave strolled into the 2023 campaign with a ranking beside their name while holding status as the conference’s preseason favorite — fresh off a season featuring a Cotton Bowl victory and AP Top 10 finish.

Not many AAC teams were better positioned to challenge that prestigious status than the Memphis Tigers. Memphis had the luxury of hosting Tulane with Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium as the backdrop — the exact venue where the Tigers emerged in 27 of their last 31 contests. That same venue had long been a place of doom for Tulane, which lost eight consecutive matchups in Memphis dating back to 1998.

But in a Friday night clash equipped with massive AAC Championship Game implications, Tulane proved to remain the class of the league. The reigning conference champion Green Wave erased an 11-point second half deficit to cruise past Memphis, 31-21, and remain perfect in AAC play.

In a game decided by 10 points, the key difference between the teams was showcased in the turnover battle. Tulane intercepted two passes, cashing both takeaways for touchdowns to manufacture 14 points out of a 2-0 turnover margin. In the first quarter, the Green Wave launched the scoring effort on the night when cornerback Lance Robinson made a diving grab to snatch his fourth interception of the year — tying the FBS lead.

Nine plays after Robinson donned Tulane’s signature turnover beads, freshman running back Makhi Hughes scored his only touchdown of the contest, which spurred a career-high 130-yard rushing performance. Then in the second half, the Green Wave’s defense struck once more in a timely fashion. Memphis possessed the ball around midfield facing a 3-point deficit when quarterback Seth Henigan directed a pass to Roc Taylor near the sideline. However, the ball ricocheted off Taylor’s gloves and redirected into Tulane free safety Kam Pedescleaux’s hands instead. That crucial miscue proved costly for the Tigers as Tulane marched down the field and into the other end zone in four plays. To cap the sequence, Michael Pratt delivered an 11-yard over-the-shoulder dime to Lawrence Keys III with 11:46 remaining to hand the Green Wave a 31-21 advantage — concluding all scoring for the night.

In his fourth career start against Memphis, Pratt finished 19-of-31 with 256 yards — attaining one touchdown as a passer and one as a rusher. But his most essential stat was the goose egg in the interceptions department. That helped the reigning All-AAC selection gain the edge in a battle between two of the conference’s top quarterbacks. On the other side of that matchup, Memphis quarterback Seth Henigan overcame a slow 1-of-10 start to accumulate 324 passing yards on 24 completions, but the Tigers’ two turnovers were too difficult to overcome for the junior from Denton, TX.

While Tulane dominated the start and end of the game by scoring 10 unanswered out of the gate and 21 unanswered to seal its fate, the middle portion was controlled by Memphis. The Tigers chipped in three consecutive touchdowns in the late second and early third quarters, establishing a 21-10 lead over Tulane. Henigan was the facilitator of all three touchdowns, connecting with receivers DeMeer Blankumsee, Joe Scates, and Koby Drake to hand the home team a brief advantage — an advantage which evaporated on the opening play of the fourth quarter when Tulane wide receiver Yulkeith Brown ran in a 9-yard jet sweep.

Tulane’s victory also put an official wrap on a unique Memphis promotion, where Tiger fans could buy a $60 ticket to the season opener and attend each sequential home game until Memphis lost. That marked the first home loss of the season for Ryan Silverfield’s squad which fell to 4-2 and 1-1 in AAC play on the season.

Meanwhile, the reigning conference champions remain in the driver’s seat for a second consecutive AAC title. Tulane claimed its eighth consecutive victory with Pratt as the starting quarterback, dating back to last November, and the Green Wave are a viable candidate to return to the rankings with a 5-1 overall record and a spotless 2-0 mark in conference play.

Recent history suggests this matchup involved New Year’s Six stakes, as the AAC champion has solidified a spot in college football’s most prestigious slate of bowls in each of the last six seasons. But only time will tell, and a rematch in December remains on the table for two teams that feature three of the AAC’s best overall records.