Five of Tulane’s 10 football games have come down to the final possession. Another was settled by an onside kick.
With a bowl bid on the line at SMU on Saturday, coach Willie Fritz expects a similar scenario and would love to see the same late-game dramatics that allowed the Green Wave (5-6, 3-4 American Athletic Conference) to beat East Carolina in overtime and hold off Houston the past two weeks.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “There’s a play here and there, and we’re making the play. There’s a call here and there, and we’re making the call. It’s going to be the same way this Saturday. We’re going to have to be on point on offense, defense and in the kicking game. Our guys have to execute, and we’ve got to be tough.”
Although SMU (6-5, 3-4) is favored by eight points, everything points to another nail-biter. Both teams have the same conference record and are coming off a series of games that came down to final minute.
SMU — which has not beaten anyone by more than four points since a 49-28 victory against Connecticut on Sept. 30 — played four in a row decided by seven or fewer points until losing at Memphis 66-45 last Saturday.
The Mustangs converted a fourth-and-26 in overtime at Cincinnati, winning 31-28. They rallied for 10 points in the fourth quarter to beat Tulsa 38-34. They lost to Central Florida 31-24 and fell to Navy 43-40 on a field goal as time ran out after rallying from a 23-point halftime deficit.
Throw out a 56-26 loss at AAC West champion Memphis, which had its way with both teams, and Tulane has played four recent tight ones, too. The Wave lost 34-28 to South Florida after rallying from a 34-7 second-half deficit, and the Wave fell 17-16 to Cincinnati when Merek Glover missed a late field goal. Tulane bounced back to beat East Carolina and Houston.
The apparent gap between the programs when SMU was 6-2 and Tulane was 3-5 has all but disappeared.
“It’s helped the atmosphere around us,” said defensive end Robert Kennedy, whose return from spring knee injury has been instrumental in Tulane’s turnaround. “It's definitely a lot easier to push in the right direction after a big win like we had against Houston.”
Safety Roderic Teamer seconded that notion.
“You have to keep fighting, keep trusting and believing in the process, and that’s what our team has done a good job of, pulling out some of these wins,” he said. “We want to go there and do the same thing this week and become bowl-eligible.”
The biggest difference between Tulane and SMU is the polarity of the Mustangs, who average 40.1 points but allow 35.3. The prolific offense/porous defense dichotomy has been particular evident in the past three games, when they surrendered a whopping 1,838 yards to Central Florida, Navy and Memphis while gaining 1,392 in uphill battles. SMU never led after the first quarter in any of them.
Tulane’s task will be to slow down the Mustangs early and put them in catch-up mode again.
“It's something that we look forward to as a secondary and as defense as a whole,” Teamer said. “They are averaging 40 points a game. Obviously we are going to try to keep them to less than that.”
For once, Tulane will not have to manufacture a reason to care about the result of a season finale. The Wave fared well in that department a year ago, ending a six-game losing streak by thumping Connecticut 38-13, but this time the motivation is obvious.
No one on the active roster except for backup center Hunter Knighton, a Miami graduate transfer, has played in a bowl game.
“It puts a lot of pressure on us and the rest of the team, just being able to win this game and become bowl-eligible,” quarterback Jonathan Banks said. “We've got to come prepared for practice every day.”
Fritz does not shy away from what’s at stake — another sub.-500 record or a bowl game and upper-division finish after being picked last in the West by every voter at AAC media day.
“It’s huge,” he said. “It's a goal we've had throughout the year and it's going to be one of our goals every single year. It certainly would be a very positive step forward.”