- Time and date: Saturday, November 4 at 3:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium — Greenville, NC
- Spread: Tulane (-16.5)
- Over/under: 47
- All-time series: East Carolina leads, 12-7
- Last meeting: Tulane 24, East Carolina 9 — October 8, 2022
- Current streak: Tulane, 1 (2022)
Setting the scene
These longtime AAC members couldn’t be in more polar opposite positions at the moment.
The Tulane Green Wave (7-1, 4-0 AAC) are the class of the conference. Tulane is unscathed in conference play and strolls into Greenville, NC with a ranking beside its name from both the Associated Press and College Football Playoff committee. The Green Wave are in prime position for their second consecutive AAC title and New Year’s Six appearance, especially with only above-.500 team looming on their remaining schedule.
The East Carolina Pirates (1-7, 0-4 AAC) are officially eliminated from bowl eligibility. East Carolina was one of the more competitive teams in the conference a year ago, but last year’s cast of contributors was almost entirely replaced by a new group. The Pirates are one of five programs still in search of their first FBS win. Even with one of the best homefield advantages in the conference, earning that win over a ranked Tulane team will certainly be a tall task.
Tulane Green Wave outlook
Tulane keeps raking in the Ws, but going forward, the Green Wave hope for fewer close calls. The last two weeks, Tulane was a dominant first half team but lifted its foot off the gas pedal toward the end of the game. Willie Fritz’s team saw a 21-0 halftime lead against North Texas turn into a 28-28 ballgame before the Green Wave scored the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. Last Saturday against Rice, Tulane’s 27-7 advantage was sliced to 30-28, and the Owls had one fourth quarter possession with an opportunity to take the lead.
Finishing games is certainly an emphasis for the No. 24 team according to the CFP committee, but Tulane has demonstrated this capability before. Earlier in October, the Green Wave erased an 11-point second half deficit at Memphis and transformed it into a 10-point victory. Tulane hasn’t won any of its four AAC contests by more than 12, but good teams find ways to win regardless of the circumstances, and that’s what this team has done up until this point.
One reason Tulane keeps emerging in crunch time is the presence of quarterback Michael Pratt. Pratt was absent for the Green Wave’s lone defeat to Ole Miss this year, and the team has won 10 consecutive games with the fourth-year starter in the lineup — including an AAC Championship Game and Cotton Bowl. The All-AAC quarterback’s stats may not jump off the table this year, but he hasn’t been demanded too much of a burden offensively thanks to a steady run game. Pratt hasn’t collected 300 yards once, but he’s remained efficient with a 71.3 completion rate (eighth in FBS for quarterbacks with 100+ attempts) and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 14-to-3.
Rather than aerial dominance, Tulane takes on the identity most Fritz teams do — pound the rock excessively. Last year Tyjae Spears was the team’s dominant workhorse and this year the reins have been handed to Makhi Hughes. Hughes is the AAC’s leading rusher after registering four consecutive 120+ yard games, all on 20+ attempts. He is fresh off a career-high 153 against Rice in a game where he surpassed the century mark in the first half alone. Breakaway runs haven’t been too frequent for the emerging star, but he consistently picks up efficient chunks of yardage — averaging at least 5.0 yards in seven of eight games.
Hughes is supported by arguably the best offensive line in the AAC, which features two first team all-conference selections from 2022 on the interior. Not only do they pave the way for a potent rushing attack, but they keep Pratt upright as well. Pratt has only taken seven sacks in six starts, allowing him to extend plays with both his arm and legs.
Pratt’s receiving corps might be limited Saturday, however. Wide receiver Jha’Quan Jackson exited the Rice game in the second quarter after suffering an injury in the end zone and his status is up in the air. But Tulane offers other explosive receivers if Jackson remains absent. Lawrence Keys III and Chris Brazzell II, like Jackson, average at least 17 yards per reception and are explosive downfield threats. As those averages suggest, when the Green Wave pass, they prefer to look well beyond the sticks.
On defense, Tulane presents one of the most formidable fronts in the entire FBS. Teams struggle to generate any semblance of a ground game on the Green Wave, averaging just 78.9 yards per game (5th in FBS) and 2.8 yards per carry. Additionally, Tulane checks in as a top 25 team in sacks produced. The team frequently rotates between defensive linemen, and frankly, all of them are effective. Nose tackle Patrick Jenkins draws the most attention with 9.0 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks on the season, while Devean Deal, Keith Cooper Jr., and Darius Hodges have all produced significant pressure from the boundary.
Where Tulane demonstrates vulnerability on defense is in coverage. The Green Wave played better than expected against Rice, but teams like North Texas and UAB were able to provide scares with dominant showings through the air. Tulane is 111th in passing yards allowed per game, but the team makes up for its shortcomings with a high-takeaway rates. The Green Wave are tied for 13th nationally in picks this year, led by ballhawking cornerback Lance Robinson and his four interceptions.
East Carolina Pirates outlook
Yes, East Carolina lost 41-27 to UTSA last Saturday, but that game showcased plenty of positives for the Pirates. It was simply their best offensive showing against FBS competition this year. East Carolina was one point away from its season-high against FBS opponents, but it moved the ball better than it did all season, generating 366 yards on a UTSA defense which had been pretty stout in AAC play.
Quarterback Alex Flinn seemed to take a significant stride in San Antonio. After rotating in and out with Mason Garcia all season, Flinn finally held the quarterback role for an entire game and played respectably enough to sustain it. He totaled 225 yards on a 53.5 completion rate through the air while tallying 53 on the ground, net of five sacks. East Carolina exploded for 17 first quarter points thanks to a hot start by the junior, which was especially refreshing after posting just seven points against Charlotte the week prior.
A more poised and confident Flinn can work wonders for this offense, but Tulane’s defensive line might not keep things friendly. He took five sacks to UTSA and fending off the Green Wave front won’t be an easy task for an offensive line composed of many first-year starters.
East Carolina’s passing game has been a struggle for the most part, completion 50.7 percent of passes (third worst in FBS) with just 169 yards per game. But to open things up, the Pirates especially need to kickstart the run game. They hold a national ranking of 106th in rushing yards per game, and they’ve shifted away from running back usage in recent weeks. No running back saw more than seven carries against UTSA or four carries against Charlotte, and the Pirates have leaned heavily toward keeping the ball in Flinn’s hands. Tulane might not be the team to jumpstart the running backs against, but improvement in that element could help alleviate pressure off the passing game going forward.
The Pirates feature a capable receiver trio of Chase Sowell, Jaylen Johnson, and Jsi Hatfield to promote the passing attack, but they suffered one loss that cannot be understated. Tight end Shane Calhoun will miss the remainder of the season with a wrist injury and he was one of the veteran leaders on this inexperienced team, as well as the leader in touchdown receptions.
East Carolina has been much more stellar defensively this year than on offense, but it didn’t quite show against UTSA. The Roadrunners generated 515 yards and 41 points, which was the second time this year ECU yielded more than 31. The Pirates feature the nation’s 38th ranked run defense, limiting opponents 120.9 yards per game on an average of 3.5. They aren’t too shabby containing receivers either, forcing a 58.3 completion rate and 233 yards per contest.
Surprisingly, ECU produces these impressive defensive numbers without applying much pressure to opposing quarterbacks. Blitzes aren’t too frequent in the defense and the Pirates averages just 1.1 sacks per game which is bottom five in the FBS. But the linebackers stay true to their gaps and are adept at bottling up running backs on first contact. Jeremy Lewis is the standout in this regard, racking up 6.5 tackles for loss in addition to 27 total stops on the season.
Other defensive standouts to watch in purple and gold are defensive end Chad Stephens, who has a team-high 9.5 tackles for loss and omnipresent safety Julius Wood, who ranks atop the roster for the second-straight year in tackles.
Special teams has been shaky for East Carolina though. When the offense enters the red zone, scoring isn’t as reliable of a result as Mike Houston and Co. would hope. In 27 red zone trips, ECU has 14 touchdowns and seven field goals. Kicking has been an ongoing issue for this program, and the team has converted on just 10-of-16 kicks this year — an area where Tulane shows more reliability.
There’s no need to overthink this one.
This is the week Tulane finally pulls away from an AAC opponent. The Green Wave’s most dominant conference win thus far was a 12-point margin of separation from UAB, and that two-score win was courtesy of touchdown in the final minute on a critical 4th and 9 conversion. But this is the week Willie Fritz’s team finally plays a complete game. Not much has stopped Makhi Hughes from getting his 120 yards since Tulane promoted him to No. 1 back, and the Green Wave defense should be an overwhelming matchup for na offense picking up 18.6 points per game.
East Carolina lost two of its conference games by just one score (24-17 to Rice, 10-7 to Charlotte), but against the upper echelon of the AAC, the contests have been separated by multiple scores (31-10 to SMU, 41-27 to UTSA). But Tulane is an upper echelon team by definition and this one might get lopsided.
Tulane overwhelms ECU on both sides of the trenches and leaves Greenville, NC with its ranking in tact on its quest to a second-straight AAC title.
Prediction: Tulane 38, East Carolina 7