NEW ORLEANS — Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin couldn’t explain it.
The fifth-year senior walked off the Mercedes-Benz Superdome field for the final time in a Green Wave uniform knowing he left points on the field. Even after breaking the record for completions in a career (800, surpassing Patrick Ramsey), Griffin was focused on the throws he missed and where he missed them.
Tulane (2-9, 2-5 Conference USA) scored just one touchdown in three trips to the red zone, losing 28-23 to East Carolina on Saturday afternoon. Unlike most of Tulane’s losses, there were no major breakdowns on either side of the ball, or glaring mistakes that turned the tide of the game for the Pirates (7-4, 6-1).
Instead, an inability to connect on timely plays or explosive ones undid the Green Wave — an area which has typically been its strength, particularly in the past three home games.
“It was our biggest problem, not getting touchdowns in the red zone,” Griffin said. “I wouldn’t say it’s the defense’s fault. I would say it was our fault, not scoring a lot of points. You have to score a lot of points in this conference; you have to be greedy.”
The loss moves Tulane just one game from its second consecutive season with double-digit losses, which would create a low-water mark in the program’s history. Green Wave coach Curtis Johnson said a rising toll of injuries and a series of losses has made things particularly frustrating over the past three weeks.
“The biggest thing is the amount of injuries we are starting to have,” Johnson said. “It’s that time of year, and it seems like every play we are having somebody out for the game. The injury bug is hitting. If we were full force, we would have a better chance of winning. At one point in the game we just didn’t have any linebackers. We are getting thin. We had five freshmen out there, three of them true freshmen.”
Tulane’s offense emerged early and showed no signs of red-zone issues when Griffin drove the Green Wave 54 yards in six plays for a touchdown midway through the first quarter.
Sophomore Xavier Rush hauled in a 13-yard pass in the middle of the end zone to earn Tulane an early 7-0 advantage.
Just when it appeared the Green Wave were set to capitalize on the early lead, an errant whistle swung the game. Running back Josh Rounds busted through the line for a third-down conversion, scampering inside the ECU 10-yard line before officials ruled the play dead a yard short of the first-down marker.
Replay revealed Rounds’ knee hardly lowered and was never near the turf, but since the play was stopped prematurely, Tulane’s red-zone trip turned into fourth down. The Green Wave’s fake punt attempt was sniffed out at the line of scrimmage on the ensuing play.
“I wanted to challenge it, but they said I couldn’t because the whistle was blown,” Johnson said. “I just didn’t think it was a good call. I’m not getting mad at the call, but I thought he was up. It was bang-bang, but we had the benefit of seeing it on the screen. He didn’t.
“It kind of took the wind a little out of our sails in the first half.”
East Carolina took immediate advantage of the good fortune, piecing together a 47-yard drive in just 45 seconds, capped by Shane Carden’s 7-yard pass to Justin Hardy to tie the score. After allowing a Tulane field goal, ECU again responded emphatically, trekking 74 yards in 10 plays, wrangling a 14-10 lead when Carden jogged into the end zone untouched from 5 yards away.
Tulane wrestled some momentum back at the end of the half when safety Shakiel Smith stepped in front of a slant pattern and returned the interception 39 yards. A failed red-zone attempt set up Cairo Santos’ successful field goal.
However, it failed to provide the Wave with a jolt. East Carolina extended its lead to 21-13 early in the third quarter, forcing Tulane to punt, then notching a quick touchdown on Reggie Bullock’s 5-yard run.
Another stalled red-zone possession by Tulane, set up Santos’ third converted field goal of the afternoon, leaving the Lou Groza Award semifinalist a perfect 20-for-20 on the season, squeezing ECU’s lead to 21-16 entering the fourth quarter.
Despite an acrobatic interception by Jordan Batiste and a forced punt early in the fourth, the Green Wave couldn’t muster a legitimate threat at the Pirates’ end zone. In two possessions, Tulane combined for minus-7 yards of offense and was sacked twice.
“They were big drives,” Griffin said. “Our defense got a turnover, and they were doing a great job holding them. But we just couldn’t punch it in. We couldn’t even get it started.”
By the time Tulane crossed into ECU territory again, the Pirates had already strung together a 79-yard touchdown drive, extending its lead to 28-16 with less than five minutes remaining on Carden’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Bodenheimer.
Griffin finally unleashed a 31-yard touchdown pass to Wilson Van Hooser to allow Tulane a last gasp, but a failed onside kick secured the Pirates’ victory.
Tulane travels to Houston next week for its season finale, Griffin’s final game with the Green Wave.
“We need to win,” Griffin said. “That’s all that matters. I want to go out on a win. I want to have fun and go out on a win.”