Forgive linebacker Nico Marley for becoming a tad delusional after Tulane’s 35-20 win against Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday night at Yulman Stadium.
The exuberance of a dominant defensive effort got to his head.
“I believe we can be the best defense in the nation if we play every game and every play like this,” he said.
That’s a stretch, but the Green Wave was a heck of a lot better defensively Saturday night than it was in its first two games, resembling the unit that carried Tulane to its first winning record and first bowl bid in 11 years last season.
The Wave finished 22nd nationally in yards allowed in 2013 and second in turnovers forced with 35. That formula worked to perfection against Southeastern, which rolled into Yulman Stadium with plenty of confidence after scoring 85 points in its first two games and surpassing 50 points four times last season.
The Lions managed 84 yards and three points in the first half. Then, when they started moving the ball more effectively in the second half, the Wave forced three turnovers, including a Marley interception.
“Turnovers win games,” Marley said. “The (first) two games, we weren’t able to come out strong and finish the games, but tonight we finished. We started fast and finished strong, which is our motto this season.”
Tulane also appeared to find its best lineup defensively after surrendering 438 passing yards in the double-overtime, season-opening 38-31 loss to Tulsa and 344 rushing yards in the 38-21 defeat to Georgia Tech. Cornerbacks Lorenzo Doss, Parry Nickerson and Taurean Nixon all started, with Darion Monroe moving back to strong safety to team with free safety Sam Scofield.
Doss and Monroe were the Wave’s leading tacklers with seven and five stops. Nixon had three tackles and a fumble recovery. Nickerson made a tackle for loss among three stops. Scofield had an interception.
“We try to play with our best personnel,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “Nixon is one of the good players, but Nickerson is outstanding. You really can’t take away the interceptions he’s had over the last couple weeks, so we want him on the field. He’s a playmaker. He played a great game.”
The play of the defensive backs complemented a dominant effort from the front four and linebackers. Tulane sacked SLU’s Bryan Bennett three times and had eight tackles for loss, stuffing the Lions ground game from start to finish.
“It was a huge improvement,” Johnson said. “We rotate a lot of guys in there, so a lot of guys were fresh. It was a great effort.”
Johnson praised the performance of defensive ends Tyler Gilbert, Daren Williams, Ade Aruna and Quinlan Carroll in particular. With the exception of Gilbert, all of them are freshmen, and all of them played insignificant roles in the first two games.
The next test is duplicating that effort on the road against Duke this Saturday. SLU is a very good Football Championship Subdivision team; Duke (3-0) is a defending division champion in the ACC.
But after winning for the first time, the Wave is in a much better place mentally. With the defense coming together, Johnson turned his attention to the offense, which matched SLU’s three turnovers but produced several big plays.
Redshirt freshman Tanner Lee completed passes of 29 yards to freshman Teddy Veal, 27 to Justyn Shackleford and 74 to Xavier Rush. Running back Sherman Badie had a 30-yard gain, but Tulane came up empty on seven of its eight second-half possessions.
“We have a great team, and now we have some momentum going,” Lee said. “We have Duke and a pretty tough stretch coming up, so we need to figure out what’s going on as far as closing out games.”