Never mind the pursuit of bowl eligibility. A Tulane victory at Florida International on Saturday would be huge just for symbolic reasons.
The last time the Green Wave traveled to southern Florida, in 2013, the trip turned into a debacle that started a four-year slide. The Wave was riding high under second-year coach Curtis Johnson after consecutive upsets of Conference USA contenders North Texas and East Carolina and perennial nemesis Tulsa.
Already 6-2, Tulane appeared ready to continue its push for the league’s championship game against Florida Atlantic (2-6) in Boca Raton. The Owls’ coach, Carl Pelini, had resigned earlier in the week after allegations of cocaine and marijuana use, leaving the program in disarray.
Predictably, the Wave jumped out to a 17-7 halftime lead, getting an interception return for a touchdown from star cornerback Lorenzo Doss.
The rest was a horror show. Quarterbacks Nick Montana (three) and Devin Powell (one) threw interceptions on Tulane’s first four passes of the second half, leading to 27 unanswered points as FAU won going away, 34-17, exposing the Wave’s anemic, mistake-prone offense. Respected linebackers coach Barry Lamb, who had recruited freshman starter Nico Marley when no other FBS program was interested in him, did not return from the locker room after halftime and never coached at Tulane again because of health issues.
That day was the turning point in Johnson’s tenure. Tulane, which had been 4-0 in Conference USA, fell out of title contention quickly and won only four of its next 20 league games, including a pair of uncompetitive years in the American Athletic Conference before Johnson was fired at the end of 2015.
The similarities and differences this year are striking.
Willie Fritz is in his second year as Tulane coach, just like Johnson was. The opponent is Florida International rather than Florida Atlantic, but FIU is another Conference USA school from south Florida with a history of losing. The Wave is fresh off its only other conference win against Tulsa in 13 years.
But Fritz’s teams don’t beat themselves like Johnson’s did. Quarterback Jonathan Banks has zero interceptions in 42 attempts, a massive difference from the picks party Montana and Powell threw.
Tulane, which had the lowest rushing average in school history (39.6) during Johnson’s first season, is averaging a school-record 293 in Fritz’s second.
Beating FIU to get to 4-2 could signal Tulane is a program on the rise in the same way the second-half collapse against FAU indicated Johnson could not sustain his success from the first half of 2013.
1. START FAST
Tulane could not have started better in its past two games. Dontrell Hilliard scored on a 75-yard touchdown run on the first snap against Army, and Jonathan Banks ran 50 yards to the 2 on the Green Wave’s first offensive play against Tulsa. It will be hard to duplicate those quick strikes, but a nice touchdown drive on the opening possession would take some of the fight out of FIU. In a similar October road game a year ago, Tulane fell behind Massachusetts 14-0 early and had to work hard for its comeback win. Might as well keep it simpler this time.
2. BALL SECURITY
FIU likely will need a little help to pull an upset, and Tulane has not been in a giving mood this year, going without a turnover in four of its five games. That ball security is by design. A Willie Fritz team has never finished a season with more turnovers than it created, and the Wave, already plus-7 in turnover margin, is well on its way to preserving that streak. The Panthers, in stark contrast, are minus-6 (nine turnovers, three takeaways). Advantage, Tulane.
3. DEFENDING THE DEEP BALL
Playing against a series of run-heavy opponents (Navy, Army, Tulsa), Tulane has put its defensive backs in plenty of one-on-one coverage against wide receivers while loading up to stop the ground game. They did not fare well on a handful of big plays against Tulsa, giving up completions of 74, 59 and 52 yards and getting lucky when another long pass was dropped. Navy scored on a 79-yard passing touchdown, too. Facing FIU's pro-style offense, look for the safeties to get more help in an attempt to eliminate those big plays.
4. TRUSTING BANKS
After coming up huge on the last-minute, game-winning drive against Army, Banks, the dual-threat playmaker Fritz needs in his offense, was in total command against Tulsa. He ran for nearly 100 yards, completed 9 of 13 passes for 165 yards and made zero mistakes, guiding Tulane to touchdowns on all seven of its first-half possessions. He even completed a pass when a defender had both arms wrapped around him, refusing to go down. If he continues to perform at the same level, the offense will be in good hands the rest of the year.
NUMBERS TO KNOW
0: Times these teams have met, a recurring theme for Tulane this year (Grambling, Oklahoma, South Florida, too)
4: Times in past 40 years Tulane has been 4-2 or better after its first six games
17: Times Willie Fritz has started 4-2 or better in his 24 years as a coach