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Tulane maintains unblemished AAC record, pushes past Rice, 30-28

The Green Wave only score 3 points in the second half, but it’s enough to prevent an Owl comeback in Houston.

NCAA Football: Tulane at Rice Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret the Tulane Green Wave stroll into every matchup with a massive target on their back. Head coach Willie Fritz built that program into the standard of the American Athletic Conference. Embellished with a No. 22 ranking beside its name, Tulane entered Rice Stadium on Saturday having won 11 of 12 of its last matchups against AAC opponents.

The Green Wave haven’t lost to a conference mate since last November, and that trend sustained Saturday against AAC newcomer Rice. Tulane edged the Owls in a wire-to-wire victory, 30-28, remaining unblemished in league play.

Even though Tulane keeps trucking along with victories, the Green Wave aren’t strangers to close calls. They have been entangled in one-score fourth quarters in all four AAC games this year. But just like the other three, the Green Wave found an escape at the end. Leading 30-28 in the final minutes, star quarterback Michael Pratt converted a critical 4th and 1 deep in Rice territory on a QB draw.

That conversion bled the clock until four seconds remained, and the Owls needed to dial up an 86-yard play for the win. Rice attempted a hook and ladder, but Tulane defensive end Devean Deal sniffed it out and lowered the hit stick on Landon Ransom-Goelz, officially sealing the Green Wave’s 10th consecutive victory with Pratt as the starting quarterback.

Pratt boasted a completion percentage exceeding 70 prior to Saturday’s contest and he displayed tremendous efficiency to provide Tulane its seventh win of 2023. The fourth-year starter completed 14-of-18 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns before halftime, and he finished with 263 yards on the day. Pratt’s highlight throw of the day was a 26-yard connection with Yulkeith Brown in the end zone, providing Tulane a 10-0 lead out of the gate.

By halftime, the Green Wave opened up the margin to 27-7. They out-gained the Owls, 326-103 in the first two quarters with a significant discrepancy in the rushing department. While Rice managed just 27 rushing yards as a team by halftime, Tulane running back Makhi Hughes notched 102. The AAC’s leading rusher ended up resetting his career-high in 153-yard performance, clinching his fourth consecutive game above the 120-yard threshold.

Despite thorough first half domination by the No. 22 team in the nation, the second half belonged to the Owls. Rice chipped away at the 20-point deficit, thanks to the emergence of JT Daniels. In what has been an ongoing theme this season, Daniels stepped up in the second half with tremendous poise. One week after finishing 14-of-15, the veteran quarterback overcame a 7-of-17 start and completed 11 of his last 12 passes, firing two touchdown strikes to bring the Owls back within striking distance.

“There’s an element of being very limited in practice,” said Daniels, who is still recovering from an ankle injury suffered five weeks ago. “It just takes a second to kind of get in a rhythm. I would say it was different from last week to this week. Last week, we got a lot more man in the second half and we executed very well against man. This week, I don’t think the other team changed a whole lot from first half to second half. One of my favorite things I’ve noticed when watching Tulane is that they’re a very do-what-they-do team. They’re not gonna try to disguise everything and create confusion like a high-pressure team would. They are just gonna do what they do better than do what you do, so that wasn’t really a big adjustment period.”

The momentum-swinging playing which truly spurred Rice’s comeback was the Owls’ lone takeaway of the game. Free safety Gabe Taylor became just the third player to intercept Pratt this season and flew 72 yards down the field, nearly reaching the end zone. But Daniels facilitated tight end Boden Groen’s first collegiate touchdown reception two plays later to slice the deficit to 27-21. Then after a Tulane field goal, Rice reacquired the momentum on a 35-yard bomb from Daniels to wide receiver Luke McCaffrey.

“We talked about it halftime, like ‘Hey look, we’re down 20 points. And we’ve got every opportunity to still go win this, but you’ve got to believe,’” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said. “We needed to have a good kickoff return, we needed to take this ball down and put it in the box, and we needed to get a stop on defense. We did all that. Then you did feel like the moment came over to our sideline. And it’s a lot of fun to play football when you feel like you’ve got that on your sideline.”

An 8:16 was emblazoned on the scoreboard when Daniels’ dime to McCaffrey narrowed the margin to 30-28, but Rice’s offense never received another realistic shot to complete the comeback bid. Tulane wasted all but four seconds on a 16-play drive, converting several critical third and fourth downs to keep the sticks moving.

“Everybody’s fighting and competing. Nobody’s trying to let that happen,” Bloomgren said. “We’re just trying to find a way to get one more stop. That’s what championship programs do. That’s what teams that come back on a 2-minute drive to beat USC and win the Cotton Bowl do, and they did it tonight. Unfortunately we came a stop away from making that game a lot of fun at the end.”

Rice (4-4, 2-2 AAC) reverts to .500 after its second one-score loss at home this year. The Owls remain on a quest for their first winning season since 2014. With four games remaining, Rice hopes the confidence generated from outscoring a ranked opponent 21-3 in the second half can springboard into a stellar finish. It won’t be an easy road, as the Owls’ next two opponents — SMU and UTSA — also sport spotless records in AAC play.

“I really thought our game against Houston did a good job of that — they’re a ‘Power Five’ team, they’re supposed to handle Rice easily, but we start up 28-0 — after a game like that, I thought there would never be another opponent where it takes us a second to realize we can play with them,” Daniels said. “Unfortunately it happened this week, but Tulane’s a really good football team. They’re ranked. They’re gonna finish high. It’s going to be hard for someone to stop them. With that being said and us losing by two points in a game we absolutely could have won, hopefully we don’t get in our heads again that this other team’s really good and we have the belief that they should beat us.”

Tulane (7-1, 4-0 AAC) survived another close call, but the Green Wave remain the class of the conference as the league’s only ranked team. Fritz’s squad rides a 6-game win streak, and their only loss this year came at the hands of Ole Miss without Pratt in the lineup. On the road to a second-straight AAC title, Tulane does not face another team currently above-.500 until the regular season finale when it hosts UTSA.