NEW ORLEANS — After 59 minutes and 96 total points, Tulane’s chances hinged on one final play.
Fresh off a last-minute touchdown pass and record-setting performance, Green Wave quarterback Ryan Griffin’s two-point conversion attempt slapped off the outstretched hands of receiver Ryan Grant in the back of the end zone, ending a back-and-forth shootout on Saturday afternoon at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Rice recovered the ensuing onside kick to seal a 49-47 victory over the Green Wave (2-7, 2-3 Conference USA).
“I put my hands on it and the defender came behind me and got under it to strip it out,” Grant said of the two-point conversion attempt. “I take full responsibility for that drop. It definitely hurt. I just dropped it.”
But for Tulane to even get in a position where it could send the game to overtime is a story unto itself. The equivalent of a three-act play broke out between the Green Wave and the Owls (4-6, 2-4) as momentum and the scoreboard swung like a flag in swirling winds.
Griffin’s 33-yard touchdown pass to Wilson Van Hooser in the final minute helped Tulane an overcome a TD run by Rice’s Luke Turner on the previous possession, extending its lead to 49-41. But the Wave couldn’t complete a second comeback .
Tulane erased Rice’s early 21-point advantage with a furious third-quarter scoring run. That set up a gritty fourth quarter which came down to the ball grazing off of Grant’s fingertips.
“It’s tough to lose, especially being down like we were and coming back in the second half to fight showed that we never give up,” freshman safety Darion Monroe said. “We showed that we don’t give up and being that close and leading in a game you were down (21) and for them to come back and win, it just hurts. It hurt more than a blowout.”
The Green Wave committed five turnovers (four in the first half) but produced a school record 477 passing yards for Griffin — breaking the record he set last week. In the end, mistakes overwhelmed the offensive fireworks.
“The difference was the turnovers,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “But we found the intestinal fortitude to come back and forget about the plays we screwed up the first half, especially the turnovers.
“I told the guys in the locker room, I’m very proud of them but I’m proud of them with an asterisk. I’m proud of fighting back, but let’s not get that far down. We played well in most instances but it was just too hard to overcome.”
It appeared turnovers would doom Tulane. Before the Green Wave took an offensive snap, it was staring down the barrel of a two touchdown deficit.
Rice took the game’s opening drive and rumbled 75 yards in seven plays, hardly slowing down before quarterback Taylor McHargue capped the drive scrambling nine yards into end zone. Tulane’s Richard Carton fumbled the ensuing kickoff, setting up Rice in the red zone.
McHargue took advantage, scoring another touchdown on an 11-yard run.
The early deficit didn’t bog down Tulane’s offense. Griffin shook off an interception negated by a roughing-the-passer penalty and completed a 35-yard strike to Van Hooser in the corner of the end zone.
The score was a speed bump for Rice’s first-half onslaught. Tulane handed the Owls scoring opportunities and dug itself a 28-7 first-half hole.
The Owls took advantage of Monroe’s muffed punt at the 33-yard line, when Turner Patterson cashed in on a six-yard touchdown run.
On the next possession, Griffin’s pass was tipped by running back Robert Kelley and snagged by Rice’s Gabe Baker, who raced 55 yards into the end zone.
Tulane kicker Cairo Santos provided Tulane some much-needed momentum heading into the locker room, connecting on a 54-yard field goal as the clock expired. It tied a school record for longest field goal, matching Seth Marler, Mark Olivari, and Ed Murray’s maximum distances“When we got that kick I think we got the momentum,” Johnson said. “Even though we were down 28-10, I just felt we were going to score some points and come back out.”
Johnson was proven right in the second half. The Green Wave scored 28 third-quarter points, thanks to a series of explosive plays.
After Griffin threw an interception on the first play of the half, Tulane cornerback Ryan Travis flipped the script by snagging a tipped pass and taking it 73 yards into the end zone.
“My hat is off and the credit goes to Ryan Travis because he sort of swung the momentum with that pick-six,” Griffin said. “We were kind of flat until then.”
The comeback was briefly halted by Rice’s five-play, 75-yard drive which ended on an 11-yard Charles Ross TD run, extending the lead to 35-17.
Then Griffin unleashed fury. Tulane’s senior quarterback conducted three consecutive touchdown drives, connecting first with Kelley on a 7-yard score, then with Xavier Rush on a 63-yard strike across the middle.
Griffin’s hot hand propelled the Green Wave into its first lead of the game. He hit Ryan Grant on a 63-yard completion down the sideline, setting up Tulane at the 1-yard line. Orleans Darkwa plunged into the end zone.
But Tulane’s defense couldn’t capitalize on its blazing offensive performance. Rice re-took the lead a minute into the fourth quarter, on Luke Turner’s 3-yard touchdown run.
Tulane appeared ready to swing the lead back into its possesion on the next drive, moving deep into Rice territory. But a a sack on third down forced Santos’ second coverted field goal of the game, this time from 42 yards, closing the gap to 42-41 and setting up the late game dramatics.
The loss eliminates Tulane from bowl contention, guaranteeing its 10th consecutive losing season, a fact which Green Wave players said wouldn’t effect them as they travel to Memphis for another C-USA game next Saturday.
“We aren’t giving up, we are going to come out the next week and fight hard again,” Monroe said. “We just have to start faster.”