For the second consecutive season, the AAC Championship Game is headed to the Big Easy.
On Black Friday in New Orleans, Tulane clinched a conference championship appearance and associated hosting duties by triumphing in a high-stakes clash with UTSA. It was only the second meeting between the programs, but considering Tulane and UTSA were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the preseason AAC standings, it was a matchup months in the making for the refurbished league.
Both teams entered sporting identical 7-0 conference records, remaining completely unscathed since the month of October commenced. But the Green Wave defended home turf to preserved their unblemished mark, skating past the Roadrunners in a 29-16 decision.
The Green Wave entered Friday sporting a 9-game win streak primarily crafted by a relentless defense — a unit boasting a top 20 ranking in points allowed per game while also situated at third in the FBS in stopping the run. That defense only needed roughly 30 seconds to set the tone. On the second snap of the game, strong safety Bailey Despanie intercepted UTSA quarterback Frank Harris to position the Green Wave within the red zone. Then, quarterback Michael Pratt delivered a 7-yard strike to Chris Brazzell II on a crossing pattern to register an instant 7-0 advantage for the home team.
The turnovers just kept piling up for the Green Wave. Edge rusher Devean Deal snagged an interception from an overthrow on the ensuing possession, but Tulane couldn’t capitalize this time as Pratt fumbled on the following play. Thanks to a 23-yard run by Rocko Griffin, UTSA cashed in on the Green Wave’s lone turnover of the afternoon to knot the game at seven apiece.
The late first quarter and early second quarter found Tulane and UTSA in the midst of a field goal struggle where both offenses consistently stalled upon invading the other team’s 30-yard line. This sequence favored the Green Wave, which claimed a 13-10 upper hand.
But two critical UTSA turnovers before the half quickly swung the evenly-matched game. While the Roadrunners sought a second quarter lead, Tulane cornerback Lance Robinson stripped the ball lose from Kevorian Barnes, and Eric Hicks Jr. recovered around midfield. The Green Wave responded with a beautifully-thrown 47-yard bomb from Pratt to Brazzell, and running back Makhi Hughes — who posted 141 rushing yards in the first half alone — punched in a touchdown to expand the margin to 20-10.
The Roadrunners attempted a fake punt in the final two minutes of the first half, and Tulane sniffed it out to record its third interception before the break. Valentino Ambrosio connected on a chip shot field goal in the aftermath of the takeaway, providing Tulane a 23-10 halftime advantage — primarily thanks to a 4-1 result in the turnover battle.
Tulane wound up generating its fifth and final turnover of the night to stonewall a promising UTSA drive in the third quarter. Pedescleaux continued his defensive rampage by forcing a fumble 10 yards away from the goal line, and outside linebacker Jared Small scooped it up to prevent Tulane’s deficit to shrinking to one score. And disaster struck again the next time the Roadrunners maneuvered to the Green Wave 10-yard line. On 4th and 4, Tulane’s defense blanketed UTSA’s receivers and pressured Harris into scrambling from sideline to sideline. The result was an across-the-body heave which was broken up by none other than Pedescleaux, who tallied six solo tackles in addition to two takeaways in an overall stellar performance.
That pass deflection was the most critical play of the second half, and thanks to Pedescleaux’s heroics, Tulane’s defense denied UTSA from scoring on consecutive red zone drives that traveled 63 and 73 yards. But unlike the first red zone stop, Tulane’s offense stepped up after the second stop to seal the contest. Brazzell caught his second touchdown to amplify the margin to 29-10, finishing the game with 93 receiving yards — 74.4 percent of the team’s aerial production. Brazzell excellently fulfilled a void Friday as Tulane operated without its No. 1 receiver Lawrence Keys III, who missed his second-straight game due to injury.
Tulane only completed nine passes in the defensive-oriented slugfest, but Willie Fritz and the offensive staff opted to rely heavily on the ground. Hughes converted his 26 carries into 166 yards while Pratt added 50 yards as a rusher. Tulane out-gained UTSA 227-177 in this department, but the Roadrunners remained efficient against a run defense which only surrendered 78 yards per game. But five turnovers and a 3-of-6 showing on fourth downs were the ultimate factors which produced the 13 points of separation between the AAC titans.
As a result, UTSA (8-4, 7-1 AAC) is likely eliminated from AAC Championship Game contention in their inaugural season in the conference. The Roadrunners are officially axed from the title game if SMU defeats Navy on Saturday. Should the 19-point favorite Mustangs lose, an agglomeration of computer rankings would determine if SMU or UTSA wins the tiebreaker, and the current computer rankings suggest SMU holds a definitive edge.
Tulane (11-1, 8-0 AAC) will officially host the AAC Championship Game on Saturday, and given the Green Wave’s status as the No. 23 team in the country — a higher ranking than all Mountain West, Sun Belt, MAC, and CUSA teams — they control their own destiny for their second consecutive New Year’s Six appearance. The Green Wave now ride one of the nation’s longest win streaks at 10, and they’ve rattled off 14 consecutive victories with Pratt as the starting quarterback. Including last year’s AAC title game, Tulane has defeated 11 consecutive AAC opponents with the opportunity to make it 12 next Saturday at Yulman Stadium.