Tulane broke up the monotony of its final football practice on Wednesday by having its offensive linemen run patterns against defensive linemen in the red zone and try to haul in touchdown passes.
The results were predictable — a series of overthrows and one drop by offensive tackle Arturo Uzdavinis before center Junior Diaz held on to one in the end zone — but the entire team was emotionally invested in the drama.
The question is whether they can translate any of that energy into the finale against Tulsa on Friday night at Yulman Stadium after the revelation of coach Curtis Johnson’s impending dismissal. USA Today published a report Wednesday night that Johnson would be fired after the game barring a dramatic turn of events, and multiple sources confirmed the story’s validity to The Advocate despite Athletic Director Rick Dickson’s denial.
Tulane’s walk-through on Thursday was closed to reporters, as it is every week, so Johnson was not available for comment.
While the result is meaningless on a larger scale, beating Tulsa would send the seniors out with a victory for the first time since 2003.
“As players, we control the things that we can control,” said senior quarterback Jordy Joseph, who will start in place of an injured Tanner Lee for the second time in his career. “We listen to the game plan and we follow the game plan. The coaches coach, but ultimately it’s on us to execute the game plan.”
Johnson fielded three questions about his future and only one about Tulsa at his weekly media conference on Tuesday, an indication of the state of the program after a disheartening 49-21 loss at American Athletic Conference cellar dweller SMU last Saturday. The Wave will finish 3-9 for the second consecutive season if it loses, but Johnson sounded hope for the future with potentially 18 starters returning.
“We did make some progress,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate that we ran into one of these seasons where we just couldn’t get things going, and we played against some really good teams.”
Barring a miracle, he won’t get another chance after digging himself a hole right away.
Tulane opened with a mistake-plagued 37-7 home loss to 2013 ACC Coastal division champion Duke, which climbed as high as No. 21 in The Associated Press Poll before losing four in a row. Next was a trip to 2014 Coastal division champ Georgia Tech, which pummeled the Wave 65-14 and rose to No. 14 before dropping eight of its next nine games.
The AAC, which struggled to win any significant nonconference matchups last year, produced four ranked teams that combined to lose one game by the start of November. Tulane faced all of them consecutively in October, falling to Temple, Houston, Navy and Memphis by the combined score of 163-44.
The Wave struggled against lesser opponents, too. It lost 7-3 to Connecticut for homecoming in a driving rainstorm, beat Army 34-31 on a last-second field goal and was a no-show against SMU on the Mustangs’ Senior Night.
That performance almost certainly sealed Johnson’s fate.
“It was very disappointing,” Johnson said. “I thought we were ready for the first couple of series and then after that we just didn’t play up to par. I think our team thought they were going to lay down, but there was no way. It just fell apart.”
The only incentive left is to return the favor against Tulsa, whose lone conference victories were against SMU and winless UCF. All of the Golden Hurricane’s defeats have come by double digits, but that includes a 52-38 loss at Oklahoma when it rolled up 603 yards.
Tulsa’s five wins under first-year coach Philip Montgomery, formerly the offensive coordinator at Baylor, match its total for 2013 and 2014 combined. A sixth victory against Tulane would guarantee the Golden Hurricane a bowl game in December.
“They are fighting for something,” safety Darion Monroe said. “They are trying to go bowling, and we are trying to play party spoiler. We are going to come out with a bunch of energy, but we know they are going to come out with a bunch of energy. Being that it’s Senior Night, we are going to be fighting. It’s going to be a great game.”
In a similar scenario last year, Tulane lost to Temple 10-3 at Yulman Stadium. The Wave figures to need a whole lot more than 10 points to have a shot this time.
Tulsa has surpassed 500 yards six times and scored 34 or more on eight occasions, staying afloat despite ranking last in the AAC in total defense and second-to-last in scoring defense.
Tulane ranks no higher than 10th in the 12-team league in any significant offensive category.
The ability to move the ball in a matchup of weakness versus weakness will be pivotal to ending the long streak of duds in season closers.
“Some of these seniors have been with me throughout my entire time here,” Johnson said. “I really want to send these guys off right. They mean so much to me. Every meeting, every spring practice, in the weight room, I see these guys working hard and doing the right thing.”
Receiver Devon Breaux (injured ribs) has been ruled out, while safety Roderic Tamer is doubtful with a quad strain. … Johnson said redshirt freshman quarterback Glen Cuillette would get action with a specific package of a few plays rather than operating the full offense.