For the first time in his coaching career, Tulane’s Willie Fritz lost a game when his team was plus-2 or better in turnover margin.
He did not have a hard time figuring out why.
Tulane had another close call in its American Athletic Conference opener but got nothing to show for it after making too many mistakes, succumbing to Navy’s powerful triple-option offense late in the fourth quarter of a 21-14 loss at Yulman Stadium.
The Midshipmen (3-0, 2-0) rushed for 287 yards and converted 9 of 14 third downs, rallying to score the go-ahead touchdown with 2:57 left. That 72-yard drive started after Andrew DiRocco missed a 45-yard field goal that would have given Tulane (1-2, 0-1) a 17-13 lead.
The Wave lost its opener at Wake Forest 7-3.
“We had too many self-inflicted (problems),” Fritz said. “We had penalties; we had busts. I challenged those guys that if you’re not sure what to do, come on back and see (the coaches). We’re up from 5:30 in the morning until about 9:30 at night, so we’re there. Paying attention to detail is part of what you have to have to win these kinds of games.”
Freshman quarterback Johnathan Brantley had a rough passing outing in his first career start, completing 3 of 12 passes for 21 yards while Navy dropped three potential interceptions. He was benched for former starter Glen Cuiellette on the Wave’s final possession after throwing a ball away on second down, but Cuiellette was tackled while trying to pass on both of his plays as Tulane’s final chance ended.
Dontrell Hilliard led the Wave with 97 rushing yards on 16 carries, while Josh Rounds added 75 yards on 11 attempts as Tulane finished with 240 yards on the ground.
“It’s very frustrating knowing that we got everything that we wanted and we still fell short,” Hilliard said. “We know we have to come through at the end. We just got mentally fatigued. We knew we would have to out-discipline them, but we just killed ourselves at the end.”
Navy quarterback Will Worth gained 111 yards on 26 carries — far better than his combined total for the first two games — converting several of the Midshipmen’s third-down opportunities. The Wave, which returned several starters from a unit that held Navy to a season-low 133 rushing yards a year ago, was not as successful this time.
Both teams threw more than expected in a quick-moving first half, which had only a combined 62 plays and one touchdown apiece. Navy scored first, converting four first downs on a 15-play, 94-yard drive to go ahead 7-0 with 14:28 left in the second quarter.
Three missed tackles hurt the Wave on that possession. Safety Will Harper let receiver Jamir Tillman elude his grasp for a 19-yard gain on second-and-10. Cornerback Donnie Lewis, who had contain on a reverse, could not hold on to slotback Dishan Romine as the Midshipmen gained 21 yards on third-and-12. Slotback Toneo Gulley then bounced off a tackle by nickelback Richard Allen on an 18-yard burst to the 6 on third-and-3.
Fullback Chris High scored on the next play.
Tulane responded immediately with an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, facing no third downs along the way while Rounds gained 52 yards on five carries.
The pattern repeated in the second half. Navy went ahead 13-7 on an 11-play, 75-yard drive, converting third-and-8 with an option pitch and overcoming a chop block that created a first-and-24 on two keepers by Worth.
The extra point was no good, though, and Tulane answered right away again. Rounds converted fourth-and-1 from the Wave 44 and, one play later, Hilliard raced 36 yards for a touchdown.
DiRocco’s extra point gave the Wave a 14-13 lead with 4:27 left in the third quarter.
When Tulane defensive end Peter Woullard pounced on a fumbled pitch two plays later, the Wave appeared in position to win a conference opener for the second straight year and only the fifth time since its perfect season in 1998.
Instead, Navy delivered the big blow the next time it got the ball.
Fritz replaced Brantley with Cuiellette for the final two plays of Tulane’s last possession, but Cuiellette, the starter for the first two games, was tackled before he could pass each time, ending the Wave’s last chance.
“I couldn’t get into a rhythm,” Brantley said. “It was tough. If it wasn’t good enough to get a win, I don’t think I played well enough.”