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Tulane lives on the edge, but fends off ECU in 13-10 rock fight

The Green Wave remain unbeaten in AAC play after their third-straight one-score victory.

NCAA Football: Tulane at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

A win is a win.

It may not be the case for the College Football Playoff standings, as style points are always welcome, but when it comes down to the objective AAC standings, the Tulane Green Wave took care of business Saturday.

On paper, it was the most lopsided matchup possible in the AAC. Tulane entered with its name embellished by a national ranking and strolled into Greenville, NC toting a 7-1 record. Meanwhile, East Carolina woke up Saturday as one of four teams without an FBS win, plagued by a 1-7 record with bowl eligibility out of reach.

Yet, Tulane needed to overcome a 10-point first half deficit in the stunning result. The Green Wave climbed out of the 10-0 hole to tie the game at halftime and only wound up winning 13-10, thanks to an early fourth quarter field goal.

East Carolina featured the 11th worst scoring offense in the FBS prior to Saturday, but that unit pieced together two scoring drives on its first two opportunities. Quarterback Alex Flinn guided the Pirates on an extended 13-play, 71-yard drive to land them a chip shot field goal on the opening series. Then after forcing a Tulane punt, Flinn maneuvered his troops downfield with long passes to Jsi Hatfield and Chase Sowell. Running back Gerald Green finished the rest at the 1-yard line to hand the Pirates a 10-0 lead — their largest advantage in AAC play this season.

It wasn’t immediate but Tulane responded with a 92-yard drive in the second quarter as quarterback Michael Pratt found Lawrence Keys III on a pass toward the perimeter to break the shutout. The Green Wave found themselves right back in the red zone one drive later with an opportunity to take the lead. But upon reaching first and goal from the 3, the offense began to struggle. Defensive deflections and drops forced Tulane to kick a 21-yard field goal with one second left in the half — an instrumental second Tulane wasn’t initially granted, but was awarded upon further review.

The second half featured long, sustained possessions which didn’t amount to anything significant on the scoreboard. Tulane hogged up 21:40 of the final 30 minutes of gameplay, limiting East Carolina’s opportunities at a win. Green Wave kicker Valentino Ambrosio delivered the game-winning shot with 14:14 remaining, redeeming himself after missing a go-ahead kick in the third quarter. The closest East Carolina’s offense navigated in the second half was to the Tulane 45, where a turnover on downs occurred with 7:17 remaining. The Green Wave utilized their run game to exhaust all 7:17 of that clock until Pratt entered victory formation inside the ECU 5.

The separation between the teams in the box score was much more substantial than the margin on the scoreboard. Tulane out-gained East Carolina, 368-190, utilizing a balanced offense to keep the sticks moving throughout the contest. Running back Makhi Hughes remained the AAC’s leading rusher with a 105-yard outing — his fifth-straight game hitting the century mark. Pratt delivered 213 passing yards on 25 attempts, refraining free of an interception in a completely turnover-free game.

But Tulane’s offense had one glaring weakness all afternoon: the red zone. Five red zone appearances for the Green Wave resulted in one touchdown, two chip shot field goals, one missed field goal from 31 yards, and the victory formation kneeldown — as Tulane notably avoided highly-attainable style points to improve its College Football Playoff ranking toward the end of the contest. For ECU, reaching the red zone was the issue after the first quarter. The Pirates never traveled inside the Tulane 40-yard line after their first two possessions, as a relentless defense led by Jesus Machado and Tyler Grubbs provided routine stops.

East Carolina (1-8, 0-5 AAC) continues to search for its first FBS win after squandering a 10-0 lead to the reigning conference champions. The Pirates return to the road for their next two matchups including their upcoming Saturday game against Florida Atlantic.

Tulane (8-1, 5-0 AAC) remains perfect in AAC play despite another close call. The Green Wave won each of their last three contests by one-score and have yet to defeat a conference opponent by more than 12 points this year. The quest to host their second consecutive AAC Championship Game continues next week in New Orleans, as Tulsa becomes the next challenger to the lone ranked team in the conference.