Tulane flipped what had become a familiar script from at least the past 15 years Saturday at Yulman Stadium, and a season that started ominously suddenly is filled with optimism entering the most pivotal part of the schedule.
On so many occasions since the turn of the century, a game began in promising fashion before a comedy of errors turned the outcome into a continuing tragedy.
Not this time. Not against reeling Central Florida.
After gift-wrapping an early touchdown to the Knights when Peter Picerelli dropped the ball as he was preparing to punt, the Green Wave drilled UCF with a series of big plays on its way to a 45-31 victory that was more lopsided than the final score indicated.
Tulane (2-2, 1-0 American Athletic), outscored 102-17 by Duke and Georgia Tech in its first two games, won its conference opener for only the third time this century and has outscored its past two opponents 83-38 heading into a stretch of four consecutive games against undefeated teams.
UCF (0-5, 0-1), which lost only one conference game in the first two years of AAC play, remained winless amid a remarkable free fall under coach George O’Leary.
“We talked all week about getting to .500,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “It’s going to be hard sledding, but we have to play how we’re capable of playing, and we’ll get some good wins.”
The mood for the morning start at Yulman Stadium changed dramatically when Tulane faked a punt in the first quarter, with walk-on Marshall Wadleigh taking a handoff from up back Rob Kelley and gaining 24 yards to the UCF 43. Seconds earlier, the punt team had been greeted by a smattering of boos when it ran on the field after running back Sherman Badie was stuffed on third-and-1.
“We’ve been doing that fake for weeks and weeks in practice,” Johnson said. “We did a phenomenal job getting it in the right hands, and it was critical. After we did that, it was a breath of fresh air.”
The rest of the day was all cheers. The big plays came one after the other as sophomore Tanner Lee (15-of-26 for 190 yards) threw a career-high four touchdowns and the defense registered seven sacks, held the Knights to minus-35 rushing yards and forced five turnovers, with four coming on the first play of UCF possessions.
“Our offensive line played great today, and guys were just making plays,” Lee said. “The defense was giving us the ball, so we had a good game to build off of last week and just keep this momentum.”
Wide receiver Devon Breaux ran under a third-down pass for a 39-yard grab to the 2 on a post pattern, setting up the tying touchdown.
One play after Tulane converted a go-ahead field goal, UCF receiver Chris Johnson appeared to be in the clear for a touchdown after sidestepping cornerback Richard Allen. Instead, cornerback Parry Nickerson chased him down and stripped him at the Tulane 15. Allen caught the fumble and returned it 36 yards to the UCF 49 to finish the wild play.
“That was on my mind the whole time,” Nickerson said of his strip. “I just saw the opportunity to make a big play. It was a big momentum change. I wanted to pump up the crowd and get the offense and defense going.”
Immediately, Lee connected with Teddy Veal for a 49-yard touchdown, and Tulane went up 17-7 rather than trailing 14-10.
On UCF’s next snap, a receiver fell down, giving safety Roderic Teamer an easy interception he returned to the UCF 30. That turnover set up a 4-yard touchdown run by Badie.
The second half was more of the same. Defensive end Royce LaFrance had three sacks in the span of four plays, causing a fumble on the third one that teammate Corey Redwine recovered at the UCF 10.
The next time UCF had the ball, linebacker Rae Juan Marbley picked off a deflected pass and returned it to the UCF 3. Kelley’s 4-yard touchdown reception gave the Wave a 38-10 lead with 4:52 left in the third quarter.
All of this from a team that had lost nine of its past 12 games dating to last season, had failed to score more than 10 points in its previous five games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents and had beaten UCF only once in six meetings, winning that game 10-9.
The Knights closed the margin to 45-31 against the Wave’s backups, but this one never was in doubt during the second half. All that did was cost the Wave its most lopsided conference-opening victory since beating Auburn 32-0 in 1941 when it was in the Southeastern Conference.
“We showed our speed and athleticism,” Johnson said. “It really looked good.”