After the special teams imploded at Duke, Tulane is seeking an explosion that turns around a disappointing 1-3 start.
The task won’t be easy Saturday at Rutgers (3-1). For the second consecutive week, the Green Wave is a double-digit underdog against a power-conference team. Tulane has dropped 16 in a row outside of Louisiana and is coming off a turnover-plagued, 47-13 loss that featured enough kicking game miscues to fill a season-long blooper video.
Yet quarterback Tanner Lee still sees signs for hope.
“There’s going to be a moment when we turn it on, get it all cleaned up and put it all together,” he said. “We have to get a win here, take that feeling and ride it the rest of the season.”
There is precedent for that belief. Last year, Tulane lost 52-17 at Syracuse in its fourth game despite being outgained only 405-330, collapsing under the weight of two turnovers and two blocked punts in the second quarter alone.
Left for dead, the Wave responded by beating Louisiana-Monroe 31-14 on the road, starting a four-game win streak that included victories against bowl-bound East Carolina and North Texas, teams that combined to go 19-7.
Duke outgained Tulane only 427-391, but Lee’s interceptions, a pair of botched punt snaps and a muffed punt distorted the score. The Wave rushed for 231 yards, its third highest total in coach Curtis Johnson’s 29 games.
“I feel like we’re capable of winning the rest of our games,” wide receiver Xavier Rush said. “If we eliminate those mental mistakes and those turnovers, the ones we lost could have been one-drive games. That’s what’s killed us.”
Rutgers is no ULM, though. The Scarlet Knights, playing their first year in the Big Ten, won at Navy last Saturday after losing a week earlier to Penn State 13-10.
And this year’s Tulane is not last year’s Tulane. The defense lost tackles Julius Warmsley and Chris Davenport, a senior and graduate student, respectively, as well as senior linebacker Zach Davis. On offense, true freshmen or redshirt freshmen are starting or playing key roles at quarterback, running back, tight end and wide receiver.
“Last year’s team was a little bit older and more mature,” Johnson said. “We had a bunch of guys that were in the program, so we had strong leadership.
“One of our best leaders now, (safety) Darion Monroe, is a young kid. (Linebacker Nico) Marley is a young kid. Tanner is very young, so we have a bunch of young kids that are trying to do something major.”
Lee and the offense face a tough challenge against Rutgers, which already has beaten the nation’s leading passing team (Washington State) and what was the nation’s leading rushing team (Navy).
The Scarlet Knights, who ranked 14th nationally in total defense in 2012 and 10th in 2013 under coach Kyle Flood, limited Navy’s triple-option attack to a modest 171 rushing yards. That was more than 200 below the Middies’ average for their first three games, including a 370-yard output against Ohio State.
Defensive ends Kemoko Turay and David Milewski have combined for seven sacks. Linebacker Steve Longa had nine of his team-high 28 tackles against Penn State.
“That No. 3 (Longa) is an outstanding player,” Johnson said. “If you look at him and the two defensive ends, they are a great defensive team.”
Facing that type of pressure, it will be even more incumbent on Lee to avoid the mistakes he made against Duke, when his three interceptions gave him a nation’s high nine. Rutgers is more vulnerable in the secondary, having given up five touchdown passes to Washington State.
“Peyton Manning in his first year in the NFL threw the most interceptions ever,” wide receiver Xavier Rush said. “You see where he is now, so I still have confidence in Tanner.”
Tulane’s defense appears to match up better with Rutgers, which scored 17 or fewer points in six of its last eight games a year ago. The Scarlet Knights rely on a run-heavy offense. Quarterback Gary Nova, a caretaker rather than a playmaker, has six touchdown passes and six interceptions.
Johnson’s first game as coach at Tulane was against Rutgers in the 2012 opener at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Wave lost 24-12 but held the Scarlet Knights to 309 yards, easily the lowest opponent total for the year.
Although Johnson rejected the notion of the rematch being a litmus test for where his program has gone, he admitted he was much more comfortable now.
“I didn’t know half the players’ names back then,” he said. “So this is a little bit different.”