Tulane forced a fumble on the first play of its home opener against Georgia Tech last season and scored a touchdown a minute later.
Spanking new Yulman Stadium was hopping. The feeling on the field was the Yellow Jackets weren’t stopping the Green Wave in its long-awaited return to its uptown campus.
By the fourth quarter, though, fans hoping for a big upset were moping about a lost opportunity. The Yellow Jackets won comfortably 38-21, extending Tulane’s misery against major-conference opponents under coach Curtis Johnson.
The Wave played six games against teams from current power five conferences in Johnson’s first three years, losing all six by the combined score of 231-69. They fell to Rutgers 24-12 and Ole Miss 39-0 in 2012, lost to Syracuse 52-17 in 2013 and followed the Georgia Tech opener in 2014 with 47-13 and 31-6 defeats to Duke and Rutgers, respectively.
To beat Duke in a 2015 season-opening rematch on Thursday night at Yulman, Tulane will have to buck history in a big way.
Yet, unlike those past meetings, Johnson said he believes the pieces are in place for a different outcome.
“We finally have enough guys in here where we feel like our skill level is so much better,” he said. “The lines have gotten better, both offensively and defensively. The quarterback play has gotten better. We should be more competitive to play against those schools.”
The betting public agrees. Tulane, a double-digit underdog in all six losses to major conference foes during Johnson’s tenure, is a 7½-point underdog to Duke after the line opened at 13½ this summer. The Blue Devils are coming off the best back-to-back seasons in school history under coach David Cutcliffe (10-4 and an ACC Coastal divisional title in 2013; 9-4 and a game out of first place in 2014), but they lost their starting quarterback, a 1,000-yard receiver and their leading tackler.
The Wave, coming off a 3-9 season when a slew of underclassmen played key roles, returns sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee, four starting offensive linemen, its top three running backs, its top receiver, three starting defensive linemen and five of its top seven tacklers.
Plus, the score against Duke last year was misleading. Tulane had 94 offensive snaps and rushed for 231 yards, with battering ram Lazedrick Thompson gaining a career-best 124 yards on 19 carries.
The game got out of hand because the Wave committed five turnovers, drew 13 penalties for 92 yards and had massive special teams breakdowns. Duke returned two interceptions for touchdowns and added a safety on a high punt snap.
“We’ve focused a lot on just cutting down silly mistakes, silly turnovers and silly penalties,” said Lee, who threw three interceptions in last year’s meeting. “If we take care of those things, we should be doing well. We can’t wait to get this game rolling. It’s a great opportunity for us. We have a 100 percent expectations to be better.”
Tulane lost a large chunk of the crowd that attended the Georgia Tech opener a year ago as the rough season dragged to a conclusion. The Duke game gives the Wave a chance to win back the fans who became disillusioned.
“You can tell around campus it’s an exciting moment,” senior safety Darion Monroe said. “Students are coming up to us saying, ‘You guys have to win this week,’ and ‘I’m skipping class to come to the game.’ We want to give them a show.”
The first step is playing well enough to keep the fans in the stands for all four quarters. The next step is finishing the deal.
“We have to start winning early,” middle linebacker Eric Thomas said. “We are a wiser team and an older team now. Last year we were a little undisciplined. The defense is definitely stronger, and so is the offense. Everybody is in sync.”
Johnson, for one, appeared loose rather than uptight when he talked about the opener. After conducting night practices Saturday and Sunday to prepare for the 8:30 p.m. start, he joked about the neighborhood response.
“I think the neighbors are getting a little mad, they’ve been hearing the horn blowing and the whistles going at night,” he said. “I apologize, but we’re trying to win a football game.”
He also insisted the 8:30 p.m. kickoff — at the behest of CBS Sports Network — would not hurt Tulane’s home-field advantage by taking the game out of the intense early September heat in New Orleans.
“It’s going to be hotter here at 8 o’clock than anywhere else in the world, except for the Congo in Africa,” he said. “We have to play with tempo, we have to play with speed and I think that will be to our advantage.”
Freshman cornerback Dedrick Shy of Warren Easton will not play against Duke because of an NCAA Clearinghouse issue, a source close to the team said. He is not suspended, but if he played and the Clearinghouse later ruled him ineligible, Tulane might have to forfeit the game. Shy was listed as the top backup to Richard Allen on the Wave’s official depth chart.