No matter the situation, Tulane coach Curtis Johnson is always presenting a positive picture of his team.
But last week, he briefly let down the mask when he said: “Win or lose, I want to see us play well. I want to see us to have our swagger back, and I want to see us having fun. I want to see us playing with energy.”
And Saturday night at Yulman Stadium, the Green Wave did all of that, delivering a much-needed 12-3 victory against Connecticut.
It mattered little that UConn is one of the worst teams in the country. The Huskies entered the week No. 148 in the Sagarin Ratings.
What did matter is that Tulane (2-4, 1-1) played well in all three phases of the game — including special teams! — to win for the first time this season against an FBS team.
That’s not to say that this was a turning-point game, or that the Wave is headed for back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1979-80. Tulane will likely be the underdog in its six remaining games.
But neither can the Wave finish 1-11, which would be the program’s worst winning percentage since the 1962 team finished 0-10.
And neither will, at least for this week, Johnson’s bona fides as a head coach be questioned as much as they’ve been during Wave’s first five games.
During the open date week and this past week in practice, Johnson and his staff were more demanding than at any time during his 31-game tenure, emphasizing cutting down on the mistakes that helped turn possible victories into defeats and demanding attention to detail.
In short: He quit making excuses for his players’ youth.
And the result was a dominating performance, much more than the final score indicated against a team that was starting 20 third-fourth- and fifth-year players.
Quarterback Nick Montana gets major props. He subbed for Tanner Lee and turned in a textbook example of game management — 19 of 26 for 135 yards and no interceptions. Montana’s longest completion was for only 21 yards, but he connected on his first seven attempts of each half.
Montana isn’t the quarterback his father was. But he handled his demotion to third team with class. How good it must have felt to take a knee at the end.
But the big props for the night belong to the defense.
To be sure, UConn came in ranked No. 121 in total offense and 122 in scoring.
But after driving for a field goal on their opening possession, the Huskies had only 206 more yards and no points.
Lorenzo Doss, Darion Monroe and Edward Williams all had major contributions, but the play of the night was when Royce LaFrance bull-rushed the UConn’s Tyler Samara, making it easy for Tyler Gilbert to tackle Max Delorenzo in the end zone for a safety.
And don’t forget special teams. Deep-snapping is still an adventure, but Peter Picerelli punted well under pressure, including the one to the Huskies’ 1 that set up the safety.
And the loudest cheer of the lively crowd came when Andrew DiRocco hit a 38-yard field goal, only his second in six attempts, to give the Wave a two-possession lead.
In this wacky college football season, one 1-4 team beating another 1-4 team isn’t going to stir much attention.
But on Ben Weiner Drive Saturday night, it mattered.