With Tulane languishing at 119th out of 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring, coach Curtis Jonson fielded some tough questions about the direction of his offense Tuesday at his media luncheon.
Johnson response was just as strong. Three years after bringing what he called the “Saints offense” to campus, he is staying the course.
“The offense is on track exactly where we want it to go,” he said emphatically.
The Green Wave (3-7) never got untracked for three quarters of its 38-7 loss to Memphis on Saturday at Yulman Stadium, committing five turnovers while gaining only 199 yards. The offense picked up 152 yards in the fourth quarter after the outcome had been decided, but redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Lee struggled mightily before then.
That performance, his teammates insisted, was a false representation of the unit’s progress a week after the Wave upset Houston 31-24 on the road.
“We know that’s not our offense,” senior safety Sam Scofield said. “It’s probably the worst game they are going to play in the next four years honestly.”
Johnson pointed to an improved running game, which he labeled a huge priority when he arrived in 2012. The Wave rushed for 155 yards on 39 carries against Memphis, continuing a long-term trend.
After averaging an anemic 39.6 yards on the ground in 2012, Tulane raised that total to 126.1 in 2013 and 160.7 this season. It has gained at least 100 yards on the ground nine times in 10 games, something it accomplished nine times in Johnson’s first two years combined.
The passing game remains a work in progress. The Wave averaged 279.9 yards through the air with senior quarterback Ryan Griffin in Johnson’s first season, then plummeted to 184.5 in 2013 behind the sore-shouldered Nick Montana and redshirt freshman Devin Powell. With the strong-armed Lee playing most of the way this season, the average has risen only slightly to 196.3.
Lee’s 13 interceptions are among the 10 most for any college quarterback this year. Throwing to an almost-all freshman group of receivers, he has been up and down.
“We hit and we miss, we hit and we miss,” Johnson said. “We’re continuing to get this thing where we want it to be. There’s a lot of stuff that we want to do that we’re not doing (because of the youth on offense). I’m looking at some of these three-and four-year quarterbacks (for other teams), and they are outstanding. I think we’ll be there.”
Tulane’s pro-based system is unlike most college spread offenses, which rely on dual-threat quarterbacks who make all of their run/pass decisions based on the defensive alignment.
The top five scoring teams — Baylor, Marshall, Oregon, TCU and Ohio State — operate out of the spread. After working under Saints coach Sean Payton for six years before taking the Tulane job, Johnson is committed to a different approach. He is selling Tulane as a place to develop NFL talent.
“If you look at receivers and quarterbacks from the spread offense, hardly any of those guys are successful in the NFL,” he said. “There aren’t many good drop-back quarterbacks that are playing in the spread. All those guys are getting hit and they’re getting hurt.
“The best spread quarterback was (Johnny) Manzel. He’s not playing in the NFL. If I was you, I’d be like (former LSU quarterback Zach) Mettenberger. I’d be a drop-back quarterback. I watched him last night (starting for Tennessee against Pittsburgh), and he played pretty well.”
Johnson said he modeled his offense on Stanford’s under coaches Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw. The Cardinal ranks a 96th in scoring this year but won 46 games from 2010 to 2013 with a conservative, run-first approach.
Georgia, Michigan State and Wisconsin eschew the spread and are among the nation’s top 10 scoring teams, too.
Tulane is nowhere close to that point yet, having scored more than 14 points once in its last seven games while averaging 18.3 for the year. Johnson pointed a finger at himself since Tulane is relying on freshmen across the board at the skill positions in his third season.
“When I took the job, the first thing I wanted to do was build a defense first,” he said. “Everybody thought I was crazy, but we went out and signed every guy who could play a lick of defense, and the offense suffered a little bit. This is the year where it kind of rears it ugly head with all these young kids playing at once. For that, I’m more at fault than anybody.”