Crushed by a controversial loss at SMU that deprived Tulane of a bowl game, junior safety Roderic Teamer still felt positive about the direction of the program.
The Green Wave (5-7, 3-5 American Athletic Conference) won’t go bowling this year, but Teamer said coach Willie Fritz will have the team rolling soon.
“As long as coach Fritz is our head coach, I feel like the future’s bright,” Teamer said Saturday after the Wave’s 41-38, season-ending defeat. “We are going in the right direction. We have talented guys and are going to have another good recruiting class coming in, so I’m confident in our program.”
That was the party line, and understandably so. Fritz has endured back-to-back losing seasons at Tulane for the first time in his 25-year career as a coach, but he inherited a team that had dropped 22 of its last 29 games and finished above .500 in conference play only once in the last 15 years.
When the Wave won back-to-back times as a touchdown-or-larger underdog in 2013, the opponents were Louisiana Tech, which finished 4-8, and Louisiana-Monroe, which finished 6-6.
Fritz came within a referee’s controversial spot of equaling that accomplishment against perennial league championship contender Houston, which is 8-4, and bowl-bound SMU, which went 7-5.
When the Wave went 5-3 in Conference USA in 2013, its league opponents were Louisiana Tech, North Texas, East Carolina, Tulsa, Florida Atlantic, Texas-San Antonio, UTEP and Rice.
When it came within an eyelash of going 4-4 this year in the AAC, its opponents were 10-2 South Florida, 11-1 Memphis, Houston, SMU, bowl-bound Navy and Cincinnati, along with holdovers East Carolina and Tulsa.
The difference in the level of competition was dramatic.
“It’s a year we're going to look back and remember one play, and the problem is we're not going to remember basically 12 games of the seniors leading the way and turning this program back to where we're a credible force in our league,” athletic director Troy Dannen said. “I don't want to lose sight of everything they did over one play at the end of a game.
“The program's set nicely to move forward. It would have really been nice to have the reward and for people outside the program to see that — six wins and a bowl game. That's how people quantify the reward when you're not inside the program, but it's close. It's close to being where we all want it to be.”
Tulane certainly exceeded the outside expectations that prompted every voter at AAC Media Days to pick it last in the West. The Wave finished fifth out of six teams but just a game behind Navy, which beat it 23-21 in Annapolis, Maryland, and SMU, which beat it by an inch (in the referees’ judgment) in Dallas.
Tulane thrashed last-place Tulsa 62-28.
“A lot of people had us down and out,” said senior linebacker Rae Juan Marbley, whose 96 tackles led the team by a wide margin. “We were just not even thought about, but we knew with the guys we had in our room that we're capable of getting it done. We fell short in some areas and we fought in some areas, but those guys definitely have something to build upon and grow.”
With quarterback Jonathan Banks, receivers Terren Encalade and Darnell Mooney and running back Darius Bradwell all coming back, Tulane returns all 314 passing yards, 279 receiving yards, 128 rushing yards and four of its five touchdowns from the SMU game. Every first- and second-team offensive lineman, including tight ends Charles Jones and Kendall Ardoin, has at least another year of eligibility.
“For the guys that are still here, the hope is still alive,” Marbley said. “The games that we played, we definitely showed our capability of what we'll be able to do next year, so I'll just say to those guys, build on that, cherish each other and keep moving up.”
Banks exhibited strong play-making ability against SMU but also plenty of room for improvement. His fourth quarter mistakes were decisive, including rolling the wrong way on fourth down, a bad misfire on an easy would-be winning throw to Mooney in the end zone and his decision to run on the final play when Tulane had no timeouts left.
Yet, he accounted for 372 yards of offense.
“He got better and better throughout the year,” Fritz said. “Plus, we learned what he can do, what he's good at. That's important as well. We'd like to have a few more practices (in preparation for a bowl) with him, but he did a good job.”
Fritz does not plan on having to be this patient in year No. 3.
“The future is very bright,” he said. “You have to step back and reflect on everything, but this would have been a nice win to get.”
Redshirt freshman cornerback Tre Jackson, from University High in Baton Rouge, did not travel with the team to SMU and no longer is on the roster.
Jackson, listed as the top backup to Donnie Lewis at cornerback, played in the first eight games but sat out the final four, making five tackles with an interception. He arrived as one of the highest rated recruits in Fritz first class before being redshirted with a lingering knee problem that dated to high school.