Lewis: Tulane has a fighting chance ... if special teams come around _lowres

Advocate photo by VERONICA DOMINACH -- Georgia's Matt Connors blocks a punt by Tulane's Peter Picerelli during a Sept. 5 game in Yulman Stadium. Georgia Tech returned the block to the 1-yard line and eventually won 38-21.

The Tulane coaching staff didn’t have to watch the film of last week’s 47-13 loss at Duke to know they had to make changes on special teams.

Some of the older players were making their feelings known while the game was going on.

“We were going up to the coaches and telling them to put us in right then,” senior cornerback Taurean Nixon said Tuesday. “When special teams are hurting you, you’ve got to step up and make extra plays.”

It was too late to do much of anything. The game that had already seen a snap over the punter’s head for a safety when the team was down by only a touchdown late in the first quarter. Then the Wave fumbled punt return late in the third quarter when it was still only a two-possession game. Both were confidence-killers.

But on Tuesday, the first day of preparations for Saturday’s game at Rutgers, Green Wave coach Curtis Johnson has made moves to improve what he characterizes as “shoddy at best” special teams play through the first four games:

— Several starters, including Nixon, have been given extra special teams duties as well.

— Darion Monroe has been designated as the No. 1 punt returner.

— And at Tuesday’s practice, special teams periods were increased.

Andrew DiRocco and punter Peter Picerelli still have their jobs, but apparently only because backup Steven Broccoli has thus far in practice not demonstrated the potential to unseat them. And there’s no waiver wire in college football.

“There’s plenty of ownership in this issue,” Johnson said Tuesday. “We’ve talked about with the players and we’ve talked about it as a staff.

“We’re doing, I think, a decent job of making some improvements. We’re making what we feel are the best decisions for the team.”

On a 1-3 team with little margin for error to begin with, the need for quality (or at least decent) special-teams play is magnified.

“There are going to be some teams that outplay you offensively or defensively,” Johnson said. “But special teams, you’ve got to outplay ’em. Our special teams have not held up their end of the bargain yet.”

DiRocco likely cost the Wave a victory with late miss from just 21 yards out that sent the Tulsa game into overtime and an eventual 38-31 loss.

A decision to go for it on fourth down near midfield just before halftime of the Georgia Tech game because there was a fear that a punt would be blocked. That resulted in a field goal by the Yellow Jackets that put them into the lead to stay in a 38-21 victory.

And then there were last week’s follies.

“When something like that goes wrong, you just get back on the field and try to make something positive happen,” said senior wide receiver Xavier Rush, another starter who is adding special teams duties this week. “Mistakes are a part of football.

“But it’s a big blow when you’ve just taken the ball away or trying to switch field position.”

It’s not that Tulane hasn’t supposedly recruited decently for special teams.

DiRocco, signed to replace departed 2012 Groza Award winner Cairo Santos, now the kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs, was a three-star recruited No. 13 in the country by ESPN.

Picerelli, a junior, was ranked No. 12 among punters coming out of high school.

And deep snapper Michael Lizanich, who pulled a quad muscle warming up at Duke necessitating the use of backup Matt Marfisi, was rated No. 2 nationally at his position.

But none have lived up to his billing.

Johnson acknowledged that the bad snap by Marfisi “kind of put me in a little bit of frenzy,” and “took me out of my rhythm a little bit,” affecting his decisions for the rest of the game.

That’s not good.

Johnson said he felt there was sufficient devotion to special teams play in the preseason, including almost all of the practice time on the second half of two-a-days.

And yet, the latest NCAA rankings reflect this sad reality:

— No. 124 (out of 128) in net punting.

— No. 105 in punt returns

— No. 118 in kickoff returns

— No. 118 in field goals made

When you’re also No. 101 in turnover margin, No. 115 in passing efficiency, No. 105 in scoring defense and No. 123 penalties, that’s not a recipe for success.

Tulane is an 11½-point underdog at Rutgers, a sign that with better special teams play the Wave would be considered on fairly even terms on the road against an opponent from the Big Ten.

But without it, it’s going to be a long day in Piscataway, New Jersey, on Saturday.

And increasingly, that’s looking like the case for the rest of the season.