Ted Lewis: Tulane had to have this game against Maine, and the Greenies got it done _lowres

Advocate staff photo by A.J. SISCO -- Tulane Green Wave wide receiver Devon Breaux (8) takes a Tanner Lee pass for 25 yards during first quarter action against the Maine Black Bears at Yulman Stadium, New Orleans, Louisiana. Saturday, September 19, 2015.

Into each team’s season, a little Maine should fall.

And brother, did Tulane ever need a visit from the Black Bears on Saturday.

In what should be considered the first must-win game of the Curtis Johnson era, the Green Wave beat up on their Down East visitors, 38-7, before a pleased Yulman Stadium crowd that didn’t quite make the place the “White Out” zone CJ had asked for, but for the most part stuck around to congratulate the players for winning for the first time this season and ending a five-game losing streak.

“I’ve been down on my knees all week praying,” an exubilient if not relieved Johnson said. “And I’m an ordained deacon, so that’s real.

“I understand the situation with our kids. This was a must-win more for them because they practice hard every day, and hopefully this will be something that catapults them into the rest of the season.”

The team that could not do anything with the ball (No. 121 of 128 in total offense, No. 126 in scoring), couldn’t do anything when the other team had the ball (No. 121 in total defense, No. 125 in scoring defense) and had already filled a special-teams blooper reel in its first two games played solidly in all three sections.

To be sure, Maine is an FCS school out of the Colonial Athletic Association (free cheese fries to anyone who can name all of the members), and Tulane, despite a .450 winning percentage in its 121 years of football, had never lost to an opponent from what used to be called Division I-AA in 12 meetings since the designation began in 1978.

But in college football, nothing is ever really assured.

Ask Central Florida, Tulane’s next opponent. The Knights, picked second in the American Athletic Conference lost to previously winless Furman, another FCS school, 16-15 on Saturday to fall to 0-3.

So with Johnson’s record at 12-27 two games into his fourth season, including losses in 13 of the 15 games against FBS foes, this was one he and his team absolutely, positively had to win.

Otherwise, while it seems unlikely that CJ would have been handed his pink slip by Monday, it would have been all but a certainly by the end of the season — especially given the quality of the Wave’s opponents after the UCF game.

So in that regard, Tulane got its money’s worth out of the $325,000 it paid Maine to make its first-ever visit to Louisiana.

And now, at least, there’s hope.

Maybe not hope for a conference title or even a bowl berth.

But at least hope that the improvement the Wave showed Saturday can carry over — especially with an open date coming up this week.

Maine presented the perfect opponent for the Wave got get better against, both physically and mentally.

The Bears, who actually led 7-3 after the first quarter, could not defend the Tulane’s bread-and-butter plays, short passes from Tanner Lee to the backs that moved the sticks when they weren’t executing the running game with confidence which hadn’t been shown against Duke or Georgia Tech.

Defensively, it was much the same story.

The Wave did give up a 75-yard touchdown drive on the game’s opening series, one that featured Maine gaining 9, 16 and 35 yards on its first three plays and Tulane keeping it alive when linebacker Eric Thomas was offsides on third-and-10.

But after that, as the offense started executing, it proved to be infectious for the defense with players like Nico Marley, Tanzel Smart and Darion Monroe playing with the enthusiasm that comes from knowing you can stop somebody.

After that opening drive, Maine didn’t score again and got no closer than the Tulane 28, that in the game’s final minute.

“That really helps us,” safety Darion Monroe said of the offense’s productivity. “As long as we can get a break on the sidelines and collect ourselves and see what’s going on instead of three-and-out, that’s big.

“When we see the offense do well, we’re happy for them. They’re our brothers.”

And even on special teams, despite the prerequisite oddity — offsides on a kickoff — did well.

Punter Peter Picerelli, who infamously let a snap go through his hands and off his face mask last week, averaged 45.5 yards per kick, the fourth-best margin in his 40 games at Tulane.

But again, this was an FCS opponent, and not a particularly well-regarded one, although in their only other game, the Bears played Boston College close, 24-3.

The real test, especially after UCF which may well come into Yulman on Oct, 3 as an underdog, lies down the road against eight foes who either continued their winning ways on Saturday (Memphis 44, Bowling Green 41) or played a quality foe much closer than expected (Oklahoma 52, Tulsa 38).

So hopefully CJ told his team Saturday night to enjoy their success — but only for a short while.

“When they come up here Sunday, this game is over, and we’ve got to move one,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to get ready for Central Florida.”

Winning’s nice, but obviously there’s still a long road ahead.

And everyone connected to the Tulane program knows that.