HOUSTON — Tanner Lee could see Tulane coming together even when the scoreboard didn’t show it.
On the surface, it didn’t look like much. The redshirt freshman quarterback was directing an offense that put up just 14 points on the nation’s 115th-ranked defense in a 38-14 home loss to Cincinnati on Halloween.
In fact, the Green Wave (3-6, 2-4 American) had averaged just 11.6 points in its previous four games before surging in Saturday’s 31-24 victory at Houston — which boasted the conference’s best statistical defense entering the game.
But Lee said there wasn’t a dramatic change in play-calling or a fundamental shift in offensive philosophy to account for the boost in the production. Instead, it came down to execution.
“We just listened to our coaches. They knew we were capable of it all along; we just had to do it better,” he said. “We showed that tonight.”
Despite having four true freshmen among his top five targets, Lee said he never lost faith in the group, even though mistakes and missteps popped up — most prominently when Teddy Veal fumbled into his own end zone in the final two minutes of the opening half.
“You have to know guys are going to make mistakes and, when they do, I like to go right back to them,” Lee said. “It’s saying to them, ‘I’m going to come back to you. I need you to make another play because you’re our guy.’ And Teddy is our guy. He is probably my No. 1 target, and I have a lot of trust in Teddy and he told me he was good and was going to make a play, so I had a lot of trust in him.”
Tulane safety Darion Monroe made the most of his limited time on the field.
Before being ejected in the second quarter after being assessed a targeting penalty, Monroe seized the chance to occupy some valuable television real estate: the No. 1 spot on the “SportsCenter” Top 10 daily highlights.
On the Cougars’ first offensive snap, Monroe teamed with linebacker Nico Marley to produce a spectacular turnover. Marley ranged into the middle of the field to jar the ball loose from Cougars receiver Deontay Greenberry in mid-air as Monroe darted from his safety position to scoop up the ball and set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
It was the third time this season that Tulane forced a turnover on the opponent’s opening play. The Green Wave recovered a fumble at the onset of a loss to Georgia Tech and grabbed an interception on the first snap of the Cincinnati defeat.
Freshman running back Dontrell Hilliard said his approach has never changed.
But the way Tulane’s offense approached him has changed drastically in the past two weeks. In the wake of ankle injuries to Sherman Badie and Lazedrick Thompson, Hilliard was thrust into being the Wave’s primary ball-carrier and played nearly every offensive snap Saturday.
“Everything stayed the same for me,” he said. “You always have to be ready and, when they call your number, you have to pick up the phone.”
Tulane’s offense dialed him up often. The freshman gained 196 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by a 62-yard catch in the second quarter.
It was the way he churned out a field goal on the final drive that impressed his teammates most. Clutching to an 11-point lead, Tulane handed the ball to Hilliard on seven consecutive plays, resulting in two first downs and setting up a critical field goal.
“You can’t ask for anything better,” Lee said.
Tulane has forced at least one turnover in 18 consecutive games. ... True freshmen scored all 31 of Tulane’s points Saturday. Touchdowns by Veal, Hilliard and Leondre James were punctuated by kicker Andrew DiRocco, who also made his fourth field goal in his past five attempts. ... Redshirt freshman cornerback Parry Nickerson pulled down his fifth and sixth interceptions of the season in the fourth quarter. That surpassed the five picks preseason All-America cornerback Lorenzo Doss had as a freshman in 2012. ... Tulane won as a 17.5-point underdog, its biggest upset since beating 18-point favorite UAB 59-55 on Oct. 23, 2004.