Going to The Next Level for Tulane at SMU: Why the Green Wave offensive line has a chance for a breakthrough _lowres

Associated Press photo by MIKE GROLL -- Tulane offensive tackle Arturo Uzdavinis blocks for running back Dontrell Hilliard during the second half against Army last Saturday in West Point, N.Y.

The Next Level:

Look at Tulane’s offensive line, and you’ll see three players with three years of starting experience, one second-year starter and five upperclassmen.

What you won’t see is any game in which the blockers dominated an FBS opponent — this year or last — for a team that ranks near the bottom of the NCAA in most offensive statistical categories.

Saturday night presents an opportunity to change that path. Struggling SMU is dead last nationally in points allowed and third-to-last in rushing yards allowed, getting run over by just about every opponent.

It’s up the veteran linemen to take full advantage of the Mustangs’ weaknesses.

“Our offensive line definitely has to play well,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “They are big enough. They are physical enough. Now they’ve got to play like it.”

If the first 10 games are any indication, this is truly a matchup of the resistible force (Tulane’s blockers) and the movable object (SMU’s defensive front). Since holding North Texas to 112 rushing yards in their lone victory, the Mustangs have allowed more than 6.0 yards per carry while losing eight in a row. All but two of their opponents in that stretch gained more than 250 yards on the ground.

Tulane’s season high for rushing yards was 205 against Maine of the FCS. The last time the Wave had 200 yards on the ground against an FBS team was Duke on Sept 20, 2014, and it has not averaged 5.0 yards per carry against anyone since rolling up 254 yards on 30 carries against Tulsa in the 2014 season opener.

In the rematch with Duke to open this season, Tulane managed 25 yards on 23 attempts, setting the tone for a rough year.

This time, the Wave needs a focused performance from left tackle Arturo Uzdavinis, a fifth-year senior; left guard Colton Hanson, a redshirt junior; center Nathan Shienle, a redshirt junior; right guard Chris Taylor, a true junior; and right tackle Todd Jacquet, a redshirt junior.

If they can’t dominate SMU, they can’t dominate anyone.

Four Downs

1. Hilliard’s day

The last time Tulane got a road conference win, then-freshman RB Dontrell Hilliard had a career-high 25 rushes for 85 yards and a career-best 107 yards on five catches at Houston in November 2014. Though TU is healthier at the position than it was for the Houston game, it would be wise to feed Hilliard, TU’s most complete back, early and often versus SMU’s sieve-like defense.

2. Lee’s finger

Johnson admitted this week Tanner Lee had a broken finger on his throwing hand after being circumspect about the injury for a few weeks to protect him. Lee is exhibiting outstanding toughness, but it clearly affected his accuracy against UConn and Army. He came up huge at key moments to beat Army, but if the Wave can control the game with its running, he can pick his spots.

3. Johnson’s pressure

Tulane’s practices were lively this week. If the players are feeling the pressure of performing for their coaches’ jobs, they have not shown it. They would be advised to win if they want to keep it that way, though. With the search for a new athletic director in full swing, Johnson needs to win as many games as he can. A loss to SMU, which is winless in the AAC, would not look good.

4. Defending Sutton

SMU has been competitive against top teams, trailing Baylor 28-21 at halftime before losing 56-21, trailing TCU 42-34 at the end of the third quarter before losing 56-37 and trailing Houston 28-21 at halftime in a 49-28 loss. Tulane has given up too many big plays in the passing game, and SMU freshman receiver Courtland Sutton (42 catches, 772 yards, 9 TDs) is fully capable of exploiting that weakness.