ORLANDO, Fla. — It would have been easy for Tulane coach Curtis Johnson to dwell on the negatives of Saturday’s 20-13 loss at Central Florida, but he maintained a positive public front after the game.
The Green Wave was 27 yards away from tying the score on the road against the defending American Athletic Conference champion before UCF stuffed Lazedrick Thompson for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-2 with 3:41 left. That was a heck of a lot better than what happened against Duke and Rutgers in Tulane’s previous two road games.
The defense, which held UCF to 233 yards, was not the only bright spot. Factoring out the bad punt snap that went for a loss of 32 yards and one sack of Nick Montana, Tulane (2-5, 1-2) rushed 34 times for 170 yards, exactly 5 yards a pop. UCF (4-2, 2-0) entered as the third-ranked team in the AAC in rushing defense, allowing 122.6 yards.
“The running game was good,” Johnson said. “We’ve been running the ball well, and we blocked a really, really good team. No one runs on this team, and I thought we did.”
The ground game was particularly strong in the fourth quarter, starting with Thompson running over players on his way to a 9-yard touchdown with 11:36 left. The next time the Wave got the ball, Sherman Badie gained 8 yards on a sweep, then Thompson rumbled for 14 and 21 yards on consecutive snaps. Freshman Dontrell Hilliard joined the fun, too, picking up 13 yards on a draw to give Tulane a first down at the UCF 35 before the drive stalled.
Thompson finished with 67 yards on 12 carries, Badie had 48 yards on 14 attempts and Hilliard added 28 yards on four rushes.
Tulane entered the contest averaging 170.3 rushing yards, its highest total since MattForté gained 2,127 yards in 2007.
“We had a bunch of opportunities against a really good opponent away from home,” Montana said. “We played hard on offense, defense and special teams and played a full game. I’m proud of everybody. We didn’t give in and just kept pushing.”
UCF coach George O’Leary talked as if his team had just lost, spending most of his postgame news conference ripping the Knights’ performance.
“A win is a win, but it’s hard to enjoy a game like that, in my opinion,” he said. “We went into the game talking about four things: consistency, execution, emotion and passion. I don’t think our offense showed one of them in this game. I thought it was pathetic, some of the things that were done out there from a penalty standpoint and a turnover standpoint. We just can’t continue doing those things. We are lucky to win a game like that, without really doing anything offensively.”
Tulane was coming off a 12-3 win against Connecticut when it held the Huskies to 217 yards, but O’Leary blamed his offense instead of crediting the Wave defense. He benched starting quarterback Justin Holman briefly after he overthrew four of his first five passes, including what would have been an easy touchdown to Rannell Hall after he beat cornerback Lorenzo Doss deep.
“They were open plays that you have to make,” O’Leary said. “You can’t miss the plays he’s missing in the first half.”
Montana’s numbers were ugly —18-of-42 for 147 yards with two interceptions and zero touchdowns — but Johnson defended him in one respect.
Until the past three weeks, he had taken no snaps with the first or second team in practice since the start of the season; starter Tanner Lee and backup Devin Powell were getting all of the reps.
“He played pretty decent,” Johnson said. “Some of those throws I wish he wouldn’t have made, but he managed the game well. To his defense, our starter got knocked out a couple of weeks ago, so (Montana) did as good as he could. We just have to get our mojo back in the passing game.”