Darrell Henderson, Donnie Lewis Jr.

Memphis running back Darrell Henderson breaks away from Tulane cornerback Donnie Lewis Jr. in the first half of a game Friday in Memphis, Tenn.

Associated Press photo by Brandon Dill

Facing a must-win game to maintain any realistic hope of going bowling, Tulane coach Willie Fritz is preaching one overriding theme to keep the Green Wave out of the gutter.

Don’t beat yourself.

In Fritz's mind, that is exactly what Tulane (3-5, 1-3 American Athletic Conference) did in a depressing 56-26 loss at Memphis on Friday night. The Tigers were good enough to win without any help, but Tulane aided and abetted them with a series of mistakes at the back end of a three-game slide, turning a promising 3-2 start into another potential losing season.

To beat anyone, including struggling Cincinnati (2-6, 0-4) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Yulman Stadium, the Wave needs to play with more discipline.

“We need to win a game,” Fritz said. “We have to focus on Cincinnati. In order for us to win, we have to play better and coach better. For the majority of the teams in Division I football, the margin for error is small. There are only a few Alabamas. We’ve got to be on point in everything that we’re doing.”

Instead, the Wave handed Memphis easy points.

Defensive end Quinlan Carroll lost contain on Tony Pollard’s 58-yard score on a reverse, allowing him to turn the corner at full speed. When safety Chase Kuerschen overran the play, Pollard raced inside of him and let his open-field ability take care of the rest.

Safety P.J. Hall ran up to check star receiver Anthony Miller in a stack formation as wideout Sean Dykes, lined up right in front of Miller, raced 10 yards behind Hall for an easy 38-yard touchdown catch against a blown coverage.

Linebacker Luke Jackson got out of his gap on Darrell Henderson’s 82-yard touchdown run, springing him into the clear, and Kuerschen underrated his speed, missing a tackle at midfield when he did not get good leverage.

No one stayed with receiver Kedarian Jones after a hesitation move, allowing him to catch a 37-yard pass behind cornerback Parry Nickerson and Hall with ease in the back of the end zone.

Four plays, four touchdowns, 215 yards.

“We gave up too many easy scores,” Fritz said. “We have to make them work the field with 10-, 12-, 14-play drives. That’s difficult for people to do. Normally they stop themselves somewhere along the line. The ones that just are tough to swallow are when he’s open by 10 or 15 yards, or you don’t fit it right on the run and have a 75-yard run instead of a 7-yard run. It’s upsetting when you have missed assignments that lead to wide-open touchdowns.”

Jackson agreed.

“We just made too many mistakes,” Jackson said. “It’s on the players. The coaches can only do so much. They scheme, prepare and teach us, and in the game we have to do what we are coached to do. We’ve made a lot of mistakes in the last three games. We had a bunch of big busts, and they took advantage of it.”

Unlike Memphis or South Florida, which jumped out to a quick 34-7 lead on Tulane two weeks ago, Cincinnati does not have a receiver or a runner in the top 10 of the league in yards. Quarterback Hayden Moore is 10th in the AAC in pass efficiency, completing only 54.8 percent of his throws.

Still, Tulane can’t defend anything if the same errors occur again.

“We had a lot of busts that sometimes you see early in the fall,” senior nickelback Jarrod Franklin said. “We had the wrong calls on one side of the field to the right or to the left. We have to work on that. We have a good game plan against (Cincinnati). We’re keeping it kind of basic.”

Tulane struggled offensively at Memphis, too, with the blockers failing to create horizontal or vertical space as the Wave rushed for a season-low 122 yards on 52 carries. That number was distorted by seven sacks for 52 yards, but running back Dontrell Hilliard picked up only 67 yards on 19 attempts, his lowest total since the opener against Grambling.

Memphis surprised Tulane by lining its defensive tackles heads up rather than in gaps for the first time all season, but the Wave did not get much push even after making adjustments.

“It was a lack of details,” Hilliard said. “We’ve got to stay focused.”

The process started in practice, where Franklin and Jackson sensed a carry-over effect Tuesday from the three consecutive losses.

“The energy is not as it should be out here,” Franklin said. “If you go back to the games we won, we had guys flying around with high energy in practice. We have to turn the intensity up times 10.”

Fritz felt the effort was better on Wednesday and Thursday. The Wave is searching for the formula that worked beautifully four weeks ago in a 62-28 trouncing of Tulsa at Yulman Stadium.

Otherwise, it could be an ugly finish.

“Every game from now on is going to be big for us,” Hilliard said. “We’ve got to go get it."

Follow Guerry Smith on Twitter, @guersmith