To have any chance to upset Duke on the road, Tulane needs the good Tanner Lee at quarterback rather than that other version.
Lee, a redshirt freshman, has been alternately spectacular and mistake-prone in the Green Wave’s 1-2 start.
His eight touchdown passes put him on pace for 32 by the end of the season, a total only two Tulane quarterbacks (Shaun King in 1998, J.P. Losman in 2003) have surpassed. But his six interceptions put him on pace for 24, which would tie Patrick Ramsey’s school record set in 1999.
Lee’s 224.3 passing yards per game would rank 10th in Tulane annals if extended for the entire season. Yet, his completion percentage of .500 would be the worst since King’s .484 in 1996.
Coming off a 35-20 win against Southeastern Louisiana, Lee would love to replicate those touchdowns and passing yards while eliminating the interceptions and missed connections as the Green Wave faces the streaking Blue Devils (3-0) in Durham, North Carolina.
Since losing two in a row last September, Duke has won 11 of 13. Its lone losses in that span were to 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and FSU in the ACC Championship Game and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
The Blue Devils are favored by 17 points over the Green Wave.
“They are going to be very disciplined,” Lee said. “They are going to be very big. They are going to be experienced, so we just have to play clean, smart football.”
That starts with Lee. SLU coach Ron Roberts called him a “stud” after watching him throw three touchdown passes last Saturday, including a perfect fade toss to Justyn Shackleford in the back of the end zone and a bullet down the seam to Shackleford in tight double coverage. Tulane coach Curtis Johnson was less impressed when Lee hit linebacker Isiah Corbett in the chest for an easy interception while the Wave protected a 28-10 lead in the fourth quarter. It was one of two pickoffs for Corbett in the second half as Tulane’s comfortable 28-3 halftime lead turned into some anxious moments in the fourth quarter.
“He’s got to learn to take what they give you,” Johnson said. “I’m always jumping up and down with Tanner, and he’s learning. He made some incredible throws but threw it to them every once in a while.”
In all three games, Lee was sharp early before tapering off. Six of his eight scoring tosses came in the first half, when Tulane outscored its opponents 70-41. He threw four of his six interceptions after the break (none in the first quarter) as the Wave was outscored 55-17.
We just have to come out with the same fire that we do in the first half,” Lee said. “That level of intensity may be a little different because we get a little complacent. I think my (mistakes) come when I try to get too far ahead of myself and try to do too much. If I take it one play at a time and just execute the play, it will equal a touchdown.”
Some of his issues should dissipate with experience. College football is a different world from Jesuit High, where he tossed only two interceptions as a senior in 2012. After redshirting last season, he still is getting used to the sophistication of the game.
“The defenses are better and he hasn’t seen enough defenses,” Johnson said. “They’re not going to run the same defense you just burned them on, so he can’t come back and do the same thing over and over. He just needs to continue to learn and continue to read his progressions. If he does what his coach tells him, he’s going to be phenomenal.”
Duke, which starts three sophomores and two juniors at defensive back in its nickel base defense, has not allowed a touchdown pass this year. Light competition has been a factor — victims Elon, Troy and Kansas have yet to win against an FBS opponent — but the Wave knows another second-half fade won’t cut it.
Without a complete performance, Tulane’s 15-game losing streak outside of Louisiana almost certainly will extend to 16. That responsibility falls on more players than Lee.
“I feel like sometimes we just take our foot off the gas,” offensive tackle Arturo Uzdavinis said.
“We think we’re going to be able to go through the motions and keep our blocks the way we have been. Obviously we’ve had lapses. We just need to keep our foot on the gas the whole game.”
Tulane has lost five in a row against teams currently in power-five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big 12) dating back to a 17-14 win at Rutgers in 2010. … Duke has won 13 consecutive regular season games that quarterback Anthony Boone started.