DALLAS — Tulane quarterback Jonathan Banks sat on the stairs next to a Gerald Ford Stadium exit, looking at the floor with his hands on his chin after suffering the toughest loss of his football life.
With the weight of a bowl bid hanging in the balance, Banks and the Green Wave came up maybe an inch short against SMU on Saturday. Or maybe they came up a missing end zone goal-line camera short, the camera that definitively would have shown where the ball was when Banks went down on the game's final play. Or maybe they had not come up short at all, but a replay reviewer in the press box stopped short of deciding whether to overrule a close call on the field and change the outcome of the game.
Regardless, the result was one of the most devastating, bitter losses in Green Wave history: SMU 41, Tulane 38.
After falling behind 27-14 in the second quarter, Tulane rallied for three straight touchdowns to go ahead by eight but could not hold on, failing in its bid to go to a bowl game for just the second time in the past 15 years and the first under second-year coach Willie Fritz.
Making the loss even more agonizing, the Wave's hopes remained alive for a few minutes after the final second ticked off the clock.
On the game's final play, Banks was ruled down just short of the goal line on his run for the end zone as the final seconds ticked off the clock, but the play was under official review. The Tulane coaches in the press box erupted in cheers when they saw a camera angle that appeared to show the ball over the goal line before he landed. Both of the CBS Sports announcers — play-by-play man John Sadak and color commentator Corey Chavous — thought it was a certain touchdown.
The replay official saw it differently, ruling that the call on the field stood and leaving Tulane’s players in despair while SMU’s players celebrated wildly on senior day.
“Everybody thought I was in, and I thought I was in,” Banks said. “Unfortunately the refs said I wasn’t in. It’s just a hard loss for the team. Everybody is upset about it.”
That was an understatement. It was the difference between Tulane (5-7, 3-5 American Athletic Conference) awaiting a bowl bid with a confidence-building three-game winning streak and the crushing end to the season. Processing the emotions of the defeat to SMU (7-5, 4-4) was not easy.
“When you put everything into something and don’t get the result you want, it’s difficult,” Fritz said. “I just feel for the seniors. I’ve got a lot of years left to coach, and for most of these guys it’s the last time they’ll ever get to play. I just would have loved to have gotten it done for them.”
Banks threw for a career-high 314 yards and Tulane rolled up 27 first downs, but the Wave rued plenty of missed opportunities besides the controversial ending.
After converting six consecutive third downs on back-to-back touchdown drives spanning halftime to take its first lead at 28-27, Tulane forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and scored again on Dontrell Hilliard's 14-yard touchdown on the next play.
Freshman defensive lineman Cameron Sample then had quarterback Ben Hicks dead to rights at the Mustangs’ 5-yard line on third down but grabbed Hicks' face mask. The penalty gave SMU an automatic first down at its 44 rather than fourth down deep in its own territory.
Later on that drive, Fritz declined a holding penalty to force fourth-and-5 at the Tulane 24. SMU lined up to go for it, and Tulane jumped offside for the third time in the game just as Mustangs coach Chad Morris was screaming for a timeout. Taking advantage of the confusion, Hicks hit uncovered wideout James Proche for an easy touchdown.
SMU still trailed 35-34, but it was game on.
“They were going to call time and attempt to kick a field goal,” Fritz said. “Unfortunately we jumped, and then we didn’t keep playing. They do a lot of double claps. We’ve got to be looking at the ball.”
The Wave had a chance to regain an eight-point lead on its next drive, but Darnell Mooney and Terren Encalade — who both had 100-yard receiving days — dropped tough-but-makable catches instead forced a field goal for 38-34 lead.
After coming up with a stop, Tulane had fourth-and-2 at the SMU 36 when Banks rolled the wrong way on a designed play to the left and was sacked at midfield.
That mistake led to LSU transfer Trey Quinn’s 19-yard, go-ahead touchdown catch for SMU on third-and-13 with 2:05 left, setting up the frantic finish.
Banks went 5 for 5 on the final drive before missing a wide-open Mooney in the end zone on first-and-goal from the 2 with 21 seconds left. Banks later admitted he got too excited when he saw him free on a slant.
Banks was tackled for no gain on the next play, forcing the Wave to call its final timeout. Tulane got a first down at the 1 on pass interference and potentially had time for two more snaps until Banks decided to run it in on a do-or-die effort.
“You’re exactly right,” Fritz said when asked if Banks was supposed to pass. “We were going to go for it on fourth down, but he felt like he had a little room in there, and shoot, he did a good job of driving us down there. Sometimes it comes down to inches.”
Or officials’ calls. Or camera angles.
“We have goals that we set for ourselves and we came up short,” said senior linebacker Rae Juan Marbley, who tied fellow senior Jarrod Franklin for the team lead with eight tackles. “But we fought hard. We at least have pride in that. We kept on battling, and to come up short is just a part of life.”