In a city known for its celebrations, Tulane put on a penalty parade no one wanted to see Saturday night.
Unable to slow down South Florida’s talented skill-position players for the first three quarters, the Green Wave (3-4, 1-2 American Athletic Conference) stopped itself with one flag after another in a 34-28 loss to 16th-ranked South Florida at Yulman Stadium.
The 12 infractions were the most in coach Willie Fritz’s 19 games with the Wave. The 91 penalty yards were the second-most behind 100 in last season’s 35-31 loss to SMU.
That total did not count two plays when there were multiple penalties: When South Florida declined an illegal-man-downfield flag in order to accept a holding call on offensive tackle Tyler Johnson, and when a hold was offset by the Bulls being offside.
Tulane had three touchdowns called back, and the first one was especially costly. A holding penalty on guard Dominique Briggs negated a 25-yard tying run by Dontrell Hilliard in the first quarter, and the Wave wound up punting.
The other two eliminated a Hilliard scoring reception and a Jonathan Banks touchdown run, but Tulane ended up with touchdowns later on the same drives anyway.
“It was very frustrating,” Fritz said. “We overcame a bunch of them, but that also ate up a lot of time. It was far too many penalties. Two of them I can remember were on the backside of the zone, and I don’t know how you get a penalty over there, but we did.”
The Wave even had back-to-back penalties on an extra-point attempt. A false start by Leeward Brown and a hold by Charles Jones forced Merek Glover to attempt a 35-yarder, which he missed before getting a reprieve thanks to a personal foul on South Florida.
The Bulls racked up 89 penalty yards of their own.
Banks appeared particularly incensed by a holding call on Johnson that nullified his 9-yard scramble for a first down early in the fourth quarter. He appeared extremely emotional on the sideline after the Wave punted.
“We had a lot of penalties we have to clean up,” he said. “We have to go back to the drawing board and clean that up. We had touchdowns taken away, a lot of first downs when we got pushed back. We can’t win with all those penalties. There’s nobody to blame but us.”
Hilliard’s stats were affected the most. He lost that 25-yard touchdown run and a 38-yard scoring reception, though he made up for the second one with a 24-yard touchdown catch two plays later.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “That’s just a lack of discipline on our part. We have to finish the plays. As a player, it’s frustrating to get a touchdown called back, but it hurt more as a team.”
The Wave won’t have much time to work on its issues, with a Friday night game at 24th-ranked Memphis (6-1, 3-1) coming. The Tigers rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit with five touchdowns in their first five second-half possessions, plus a kickoff return for a score, to win 42-38 at Houston last Thursday.
“We’re going to have to turn the page quickly,” Fritz said. “We’ll learn from our mistakes and keep improving. The best thing I saw was everybody fighting throughout the game.”
Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson threw for 471 yards against Houston and has averaged 375.5 passing yards in four conference games. Tulane held South Florida’s Quinton Flowers in check for the most part when he threw, giving up only 10 completions in 24 attempts, but cornerback Donnie Lewis was beaten for a pair of 38-yard touchdowns. He almost knocked the ball out of the receivers’ hands both times.
“I wouldn’t do anything different on either of the two plays,” he said. “They were just two great catches by the players. It’s all about amnesia. Everyone told me on the sideline, 'Keep your head up and your time is going to come.' I just tried to provide a spark for the team, and I finished.”