Facing fourth-and-1 at the Tulane 14-yard line in the second quarter Thursday night, Duke gambled for a first down, and quarterback Thomas Sirk gained 12 yards on a keeper to pick it up easily.
The Blue Devils, who have gone to three consecutive bowl games and won a school-record 19 games over the past two years, scored a touchdown three plays later.
On the next possession, Tulane faced a fourth-and-2 at the Duke 27 and called a timeout to set up a play after deciding to go for it. Tanner Lee’s pass was deflected at the line of scrimmage as the Green Wave, which has lost 14 of its past 18 dating to the middle of 2013, came up empty.
Execution and confidence in critical situations painted an ugly picture for the Green Wave in its season opener at Yulman Stadium. Duke converted nine of its first 16 third-down opportunities while the Wave failed on all six of its chances in the first half, including three that were for 5 yards or fewer.
By that point, Tulane trailed by 13 points while doing next to nothing on offense on the way to a disheartening 37-7 loss that kept getting worse as the Wave piled on a series of special-teams gaffes reminiscent of 2014.
“It was very disappointing,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “We were slow starters offensively. It was a combination of errors. They were the better team, but we just didn’t play well.”
On the opening possession, Tulane running back Lazedrick Thompson, who gained a career-high 124 yards against Duke last year, got stuffed for a 2-yard loss on third-and-1 to force a three-and-out. The next time the Wave had the ball, a false start on tackle Todd Jacquet followed immediately by a free blitzer coming from the outside sabotaged the series.
In all, Tulane failed to convert all six of its third-down opportunities in the first half. As a result, the Wave extended its streak of failing to score a touchdown to 33 consecutive possessions counting the last two games of 2014, when it scored six points against East Carolina and three points against Temple.
Tulane rushed for 231 yards against Duke last season. It had 25 yards on 23 carries Thursday.
Lee finished 24 of 42 for 246 yards with one interception and one touchdown — a 76-yard hookup with receiver Devon Breaux in the fourth quarter that averted a shutout well after the outcome had been decided but ended Tulane’s scoreless streak at 37 possessions. Duke outgained Tulane 530-271, had 29 first downs to the Wave’s 14 and ran 93 plays to the Wave’s 65.
The Tulane defense came up with a big play on the Blue Devils’ first possession when end Ade Aruna forced a fumble that teammate Jarrod Franklin recovered at the Tulane 39. But Duke did enough offensively to take control, getting a 16-yard completion, a 14-yard run and a 21-yard run to set up a go-ahead 32-yard field in the first quarter.
Sirk, a junior who hurt Tulane last year with his legs as a short-yardage replacement quarterback, went 27-of-40 for 289 yards with two touchdown passes in his first career start. He added 68 rushing yards on 15 carries, including the pivotal fourth-down run that set up the Blue Devils’ first touchdown.
Sirk completed seven passes in a row after Tulane jumped offside on a Duke punt late in the first half, giving the Blue Devils a first down and leading to a 25-yard field goal as time ran out.
The third quarter was more of the same. Duke was successful four times on six third downs, getting a 46-yard field goal to go ahead 16-0. Tulane finally converted a pair of third downs, but Lee threw three consecutive incomplete passes after the first one — including a drop by Breaux — and he tossed an interception that was deflected in double coverage right after the second one.
As the Blue Devils drove again, All-ACC safety Jeremy Cash yelled on the sideline: “We just need to keep hitting them in the mouth. They are ready to lay down.”
He was not watching Tulane’s defense, which played valiantly while receiving no help. Linebacker Nico Marley had a game-high 15 tackles, and a few plays after Cash uttered his putdown, Monroe recovered a fumbled pitch near the sideline at the Wave 15 to stop a Duke possession. The defense also stuffed Sirk on a fourth-and-1 keeper at the Tulane 23 early in the fourth quarter.
It hardly mattered. Tulane avoided a shutout with the 77-yard touchdown pass from to Breaux in the fourth quarter — the first time it reached the end zone in 38 possessions — but the Wave never was in this game, suffering its seventh straight lopsided loss to the “Power Five” conference teams it has faced under Johnson.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the stands were as empty as Tulane’s offensive possessions.