NEW ORLEANS — Change on the sideline didn’t equate to change on the scoreboard.
Just five days after former Tulane coach Bob Toledo resigned under pressure, the Green Wave saw its losing streak extended to five games with a 33-17 loss to Memphis at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Even under the new leadership in interim coach Mark Hutson, the crippling series of mistakes was all too familiar for Tulane (2-6, 1-3 Conference USA).
In a four-minute span during the third quarter, the Tigers (2-7, 1-4) turned a 17-14 deficit into a 26-17 lead, thanks to an interception returned for a touchdown and a blocked punt. In snatching the lead and extending it to two scores, Memphis’ offense didn’t even need to produce a first down, underlining the bizarre events in Tulane’s demise.
“You can point out one, two, or three plays that will change the entire game or the entire season,” junior receiver Wilson Van Hooser said. “Whether it’s good for you or bad for you, a lot of it is momentum.”
And momentum can turn at a moments’ notice. Saturday afternoon, it flipped a few times, but it eventually found its way into a celebratory Tigers’ bench that erupted upon winning its first Conference USA game since Oct. 10, 2009.
“I truly think the difference in this game, as opposed to some others we’ve had opportunities to win in the second half, is that we were able to counterpunch and fight off some negative momentum,” Memphis coach Larry Porter said. “It gave this team some energy and some real passion and fight through it for 60 minutes.”
The loss marked Tulane’s fifth consecutive defeat on homecoming, the previous four coming under Toledo’s leadership.
And less than a quarter into his tenure as head coach, Hutson found himself fighting a familiar deficit when scrambling Memphis quarterback Taylor Reed found receiver Justin Henderson in the end zone from 2 yards away.
Tulane responded by driving 65 yards on 11 plays, but stalled in the red zone and settled for a 23-yard Cairo Santos field goal to slice Memphis’ lead to 7-3.
Just over two minutes later, the gap expanded again, when the Tigers marched 64 yards for a touchdown, capped by Reed’s pass to Tannar Rehrer.
Later in the half, Tulane’s offense struck quickly as well, scoring its first touchdown of the afternoon. The Wave needed just two plays and one minute to set up Orleans Darkwa’s 7-yard rumble into the end zone, tightening the score to 14-10 at halftime.
The momentum generated from the drive carried into the second half. Tulane took the half’s opening kickoff and pieced together an 80-yard touchdown drive highlighted by Wilson Van Hooser’s 29-yard catch and stretch into the end zone, earning the Wave its first lead of the game and its first second-half lead since a 49-10 win over UAB on Sept. 17.
It didn’t last long.
Memphis’ Bobby McCain abruptly interrupted Tulane’s next successful drive when he jumped in front of Griffin’s floating screen pass attempt and took it back 79 yards for a touchdown. The turnover provided the Tigers’ with a jolt of energy and a lead on the scoreboard it maintained until the game’s completion.
“Things just didn’t go as we planned,” Wave quarterback Ryan Griffin said. “It just kind of went back and forth and back and forth. I mean, we executed well, but we just had those fatal mistakes, and we can’t have those fatal mistakes.”
Memphis’ momentum reached full capacity a drive later when Ricky Holloway blocked Jonanthan Ginsburgh’s punt before it was recovered at the Wave’s 7-yard line. Four plays later, Reed squeezed his way through the line for a 1-yard touchdown.
The barrage of blunders reached its zenith during the final five minutes of the third quarter when each team tossed interceptions on consecutive plays.
The Tigers put the finishing touches on its first FBS win since Sept. 18, 2010 — snapping a 15-game losing streak against the division — when it perfectly executed a reverse to spring open Billy Foster on a 22-yard touchdown run for the final margin of victory.
“It was a momentum game,” running back Orleans Darkwa said. “We had the momentum in the second half when we were driving, but it was a buzzkill basically. We can’t have turnovers. “
“It was upsetting us from day one. We can’t have turnovers and expect to win the game. That interception was costly, and some other turnovers as well. So we’ve got to go back at it and work even harder. I keep saying this, but we know we’re better than what we played. And so we’ve just gotta keep going out there and working hard.”