Tanner Lee can’t provide a diagnosis to the source of Tulane’s most chronic pain.
It’s particularly confounding because the simplest statistic is the one ailing the Green Wave (3-8, 2-5 American).
Entering its season finale at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against Temple in Yulman Stadium, Tulane ranks No. 117 nationally in scoring, producing a meager 17.2 points per game. No matter what tweaks or personnel changes have occurred, the underlying issue facing Tulane’s program for the second consecutive season is its inability to produce where it matters most.
“It’s a mixture of things,” Lee said. “One game we’ll get to the red zone four times and score once. It’s just a mixture of putting together drives and third-down conversions and making plays in the red zone. We have to put it all together, consistently, week in and week out.
“I feel like we are out there moving the ball and being successful, but then we get down by 15 or 20 points and we have to change the game plan. It’s frustrating. It really is. I think we have stayed confident because no one is completely stopping us and we are still able to move the ball, so we’ve stayed together.”
Tulane’s 354 yards per game is better than four other schools in the American Athletic Conference but those yards aren’t getting the Green Wave anywhere.
With the exception of a 31-24 upset victory at Houston on Nov. 8, the Green Wave has managed to score just six touchdowns its past seven games, excluding a late score in a blowout loss to Memphis. Whether Lee or Nick Montana was under center, or if Tulane’s game plan fluctuated between intensely conservative to freewheeling, the points have simply been hard to come by.
The task doesn’t get any easier in facing the Owls (5-6, 3-4), whose defense ranks 11th nationally in points allowed per game and is fighting to become bowl-eligible.
Still, Lee said he’s less concerned about who lines up across from the Green Wave and more about mitigating the problems that too often turn promising drives into empty ones. His point is backed up by Tulane’s 31-point outburst against Houston, which is rated as the AAC’s best defense.
“Everyone in this league is big, strong and fast on defense, and we’ve figured that out the hard way at times,” Lee said. “We respect our opponents but we know that if we play to the level we are capable of, then there’s no reason we can’t put points up the way we did against Houston every week. It’s a mixture of things that’s kind of held us back, but I also feel like it can be corrected quickly.”
When asked about his team’s scoring problems this season, coach Curtis Johnson has routinely pointed to poor red-zone performance and the spoiled opportunities that have cropped up inside the 20-yard line. In 32 red zone attempts, Tulane has scored just 21 times.
It ranks No. 122 nationally, ahead of just three schools, two of which (SMU and Connecticut) are the in The American.
“Red zone is a mentality,” Johnson said. “I used to do a red zone talk every year (as an assistant coach) at the University of Miami, and the biggest thing was, it’s a mentality. It’s a time that the field shrinks and it gets a little harder. You have to get a little tougher and do things exactly right. I can point to 10 or 15 different things that can happen in the red zone. All of a sudden, this guy takes a wrong step and goes the wrong way.”
Regardless of whether there’s a single diagnosis, there’s one more chance for the Green Wave to come up with a solution. And the result won’t be hard to find.
It needs to show up on the scoreboard Saturday night.
“This season was a good time and a tough time, and it was a lot about fighting through adversity,” Lee said. “We had our ups and downs, and I think everybody is just really anxious about getting this win and then going into the offseason really knowing what it takes to be a contender.”