Tulane defensive coordinator Jack Curtis remembers the tipping point of the Memphis game a year ago.
The Green Wave was protecting a 7-6 lead late in the first half at Yulman Stadium and had the Tigers in second-and-17 after an offensive pass interference penalty. Running back Darrell Henderson caught a screen pass on the left side, cut all the way across the field and outran everyone to the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown with 1:01 left.
Memphis dominated the second half and won 24-14.
“It really kind of took the wind out of our sail,” Curtis said. “Not only for that game but a little bit for the season.”
Tulane, 3-2 entering that night, lost its next five games, getting outscored 183-82.
Friday night’s rematch at No. 24 Memphis (6-1, 3-1 American Athletic Conference), the preseason West Division favorite, provides Tulane an opportunity for another dramatic reversal.
The Green Wave (3-4, 1-2), coming off back-to-back losses to Florida International and South Florida, can climb into AAC West Division contention, get closer to bowl eligibility and end an agonizing 42-game losing streak to ranked opponents.
To have any shot, though, the Wave needs to tackle much better in open space than it did on that screen pass to Henderson or in its two recent losses. Curtis counted 17 missed tackles against South Florida and 18 versus FIU, uncharacteristically high numbers that would prove fatal against Memphis’ high-octane, pass-heavy spread offense.
“They are going to throw the ball out there and use the whole field horizontally and vertically, and you have to tackle,” coach Willie Fritz said. “You can’t allow 5-yard plays to turn into 50-yard plays.”
Tulane’s secondary will be tested far more than at any time since the 56-14 loss to Oklahoma in September.
Memphis senior quarterback Riley Ferguson leads the AAC in passes per game (43), yards (2,285) and touchdowns (20). He torched UCLA for 398 yards and six TDs in a 48-45 victory on Sept. 14, threw for 431 yards and a career-high seven scores at Connecticut and passed for a career-best 471 yards in a 42-38 comeback win at Houston last Thursday, when the Tigers scored touchdowns on their first five second-half possessions.
“They have probably an NFL quarterback right there throwing the ball,” Curtis said. “He is very talented with a strong arm and is a good athlete. They do so much, especially on early downs, on getting that ball out quick to the skill positions — the backs, the receivers. That's where they're so dangerous.”
Against UCLA, running backs Patrick Taylor and Tony Pollard scored on screen passes that covered 47 and 42 yards.
Senior wide receiver Anthony Miller, second on the Tigers’ career receiving list, leads the AAC in receiving yards per game (112.0) and touchdowns (nine).
Memphis has 11 receivers with a catch of at least 25 yards and nine with at least one scoring reception.
“A lot of it is run-pass options — the bubbles (screens), the quick slants and all those things,” Curtis said. “You have to defend the run and the pass at the same time. They like to create a lot of mismatches with their receivers and running backs and get the ball on the perimeter.”
It is a dramatic departure from what Tulane has faced for most of the year: triple-option oriented Navy and Army, run-heavy Tulsa and South Florida and pro-set FIU.
“This is a great opportunity for the secondary,” cornerback Parry Nickerson said. “They have a great team, but we’ll have our game plan. We know what we have to do.”
Tulane will be without injured strong safety Roderic Teamer, but versatile sophomore P.J. Hall graded out well after replacing him Saturday against South Florida. Pro Football Focus picked Hall on its 11-player AAC defensive team of the week.
“He played outstanding,” Curtis said. “P.J. can line up and play corner, nickel and safety and really not have a whole lot of reps there during the week. He’s extremely intelligent.”
Tulane held Memphis in check for the most part a year ago, allowing 399 yards — well below the Tigers’ average of 464 — and sacking Ferguson three times.
This year, he has been sacked only 10 times in seven games, and the Tigers average 492 yards. After struggling defensively against FIU and for the first three quarters against South Florida, the Wave will try to build off its end-of-game performance Saturday, when it held the Bulls scoreless on four consecutive possessions in a comeback that fell short.
“We just have to keep swinging,” said linebacker Rae Juan Marbley, who has a team-leading 59 tackles. “Everyone believes in the program that we have, and we’re pushing in the right direction.”
They just need to make sure they push Memphis’ ball-carriers to the ground. It all comes back to tackling, and Fritz, who drills his players on technique repeatedly in practice, demands improvement.
“The big part is just getting nearer, dropping your center of gravity when you get in that target zone and not running at a guy,” he said. “We call it a near-foot swoop. It’s all about leverage. As I tell them all the time, the approach to tackling is just as important or more important than the actual tackle itself.”
The temperature is expected to be in the mid-40s for the 7 p.m. kickoff with the possibility of rain. … Sophomore Jonathan Wilson, the younger brother of senior Tulane defensive tackle Sean Wilson, starts at defensive tackle for Memphis. Jonathan Wilson signed with Tulane in 2016 but did not qualify academically and wound up at Memphis that August. He has 11 tackles and a sack. Sean Wilson has 19 tackles and 1 ½ sacks.