Coming off a frustrating 38-7 homecoming loss to Memphis that guaranteed a sub-.500 record, Tulane is not exactly in a position of strength heading into its trip to East Carolina.
The offense-minded Pirates hung 70 points on North Carolina at home earlier this year and are hopping mad about dropping two road games in a row to fall from the Top 25 and into a tie for fourth in the American Athletic Conference. The Green Wave has scored more than 14 points only once in its past seven games and is hoping to match the lone exception: a 31-24 upset of heavily favored Houston two weeks ago.
“Our kids have pride about what they’re doing,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “Our defense has been playing well all year. If we don’t turn the ball over, we may create some hay.”
That formula has eluded Tulane (3-7, 2-4) most of the season. But even in the homecoming debacle, the Wave felt the lopsided score was more a product of its mistakes than Memphis’ domination. Tulane outgained Memphis 351-334 and forced five three-and-outs on the Tigers’ first seven possessions but had nothing to show for it after committing five turnovers.
“We changed up our coverages, and we disguised a lot,” said senior Sam Scofield, Tulane’s leading tackler. “They didn’t know what we were doing.”
The hard part will be duplicating that defensive effort against East Carolina (6-3, 3-2). The Pirates lead the AAC in almost every offensive statistical category, averaging 37.0 points, 552.8 total yards and 368.3 passing yards. The latter two totals rank second and third in the nation.
Senior quarterback Shane Carden has completed 62.9 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns and five interceptions. Senior receiver Justin Hardy has 80 catches for 1,002 yards and needs just four receptions to set the NCAA record for career catches (350).
Hardy is good enough that AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco issued a statement this week rebuking the selectors of the Biletnikoff Award for failing to include him among their four semifinalists.
“He lines up all over the field, and they just try to find him,” Scofield said. “We’re going to do everything we can to stop him. If we can stop Hardy, then we’ll get in a good position to win.”
The Wave did not stop him last year yet still found a way to beat East Carolina in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, yielding Hardy 17 catches for 230 yards before prevailing 36-33 in triple overtime.
This time, the Pirates boast a running game to go with their prolific passing attack. Tulane limited them to 63 yards on 35 carries in 2013, but East Carolina’s average of 184.4 rushing yards is second only to Memphis in the AAC. Running back Breon Allen, who averages 7.5 yards per carry, gained 123 yards last week in a 54-46 loss to Cincinnati.
Still, Tulane has held four of its past five opponents below their rushing average and under 4.0 yards per carry.
“I have confidence in the defense,” Johnson said. “They should play good, and I think they will.”
Finding the will to win at the end of long, losing seasons has been tough for Tulane. The Wave lost its last two games from 2008 through 2012, dropping all but two of them by double digits.
Johnson was part of only one of those years, though. Tulane’s practices this week were boisterous despite the homecoming disappointment and the unusually cold weather that mirrored the predicted temperature of high 40s for kickoff in Greenville, North Carolina.
Johnson is not worried about a lack of intensity Saturday.
“That’s why you don’t just come out and set a bunch of goals, and every time a player looks up and we didn’t get this one, we didn’t get this one and we didn’t get this one,” he said. “That’s not what we’re doing right now. We’re not at that stage in this program. What we want to do is continue to improve and continue to get better.”
Tulane’s plight may be a mental hurdle for the small group of contributing seniors — Scofield, defensive end Tyler Gilbert, safety Brandon LeBeau, wide receiver Justyn Shackleford, tackle Sean Donnelly, tight end Matt Marfisi and running back Dante Butler.
Last year, the Wave was bowl-eligible by this time. This year, their goals are less tangible.
“It’s tough,” Scofield said. “There’s nothing really to play for but just pride, but when I reflect back on my senior season, I want to remember finishing out strong.”