Tulane’s football practices were a little louder than normal this week in preparation for Saturday’s home game against Memphis.
The extra noise, which came from coach Curtis Johnson and his assistants, was by design. Coming off a 31-24 win at Houston as an 18-point underdog, Johnson tried to drum any sense of satisfaction out of every member of the team.
“I told the coaches we have to be on them this week,” he said Tuesday. “I was yelling and screaming and doing some stuff today. I just wanted to make sure we don’t get comfortable. You won, but you’re supposed to win. That’s what you come out here to do. You don’t come out here just to laugh and joke.”
Tulane’s record (3-6, 2-3 American Athletic Conference) is not funny. A tougher schedule and too many young players in the lineup have contributed to a comedown from a seven-win season in 2013, but the Green Wave has a chance to make a statement the rest of the way. After upsetting AAC co-leader Houston, Tulane gets first-place Memphis this Saturday, travels to recently ranked East Carolina next week and closes against Temple (5-4), which needs one more victory to become bowl-eligible for the first time in three years.
Tulane has struggled to string wins together for a while, last winning two in a row under Johnson in October 2013, when it beat East Carolina and Tulsa in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at the tail end of a four-game streak. Before then, it had been since 2009 that the Wave had a winning streak and five years since it beat two Football Bowl Subdivision teams consecutively.
Johnson and his staff were not around for most of those lean seasons, but he understands the relevant history.
“We haven’t been playing very well for most of the season,” he said. “We haven’t put anything together in back-to-back games. Our kids just have to come out and play the type of ball and the caliber of ball that we’re capable of playing.”
They hope the turning point came against Houston. A week after falling behind Cincinnati 24-0 at home, the Wave started fast in both halves, taking a 7-0 lead and scoring the first 17 points of the second half after trailing 17-14 at the break.
Memphis (6-3, 4-1 AAC), like Houston before last Saturday, has won three in row, and also like Houston, is favored by double digits (11 points) over Tulane.
“They said we weren’t supposed to beat Houston,” said cornerback Taurean Nixon, who played for Memphis in 2010 and 2011 before transferring to Tulane. “We are on a roll. I think we found ourselves last week. The offense put points on the board and we didn’t let things bother us. We were missing a lot of our key players due to injury and people getting put out the game (safety Darion Monroe was ejected for targeting in the first half). With everybody on the field healthy, I think we’re going to come with a great plan and win this game.”
The first key is slowing down Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound sophomore who has completed 65.1 percent of his passes for 2,121 yards and 11 touchdowns while rushing for another seven scores. He threw for 305 yards in a 42-35 loss to UCLA and 311 yards in a 41-14 smashing of Cincinnati on the road.
“They have a great offense and their quarterback is a big guy,” sophomore linebacker Edward Williams said. “He can make a lot of things happen with his legs and his arm, so we are going to have to buckle down and be disciplined.”
The Wave will be close to full strength. Running backs Sherman Badie and Lazedrick Thompson were non-factors against Houston as they recovered from ankle sprains, but both of them practiced every day this week. Even wide receiver Leondre James, who suffered what appeared to be a badly sprained ankle in the second half at Houston, ran patterns on Thursday in what Johnson labeled a remarkable recovery.
Winning can be infectious. If the Wave had lost to Houston to fall to 2-7, the only topic of conversation this week would have been Homecoming festivities for the Memphis game.
Instead, the players bounced around Thursday’s cold, rainy outdoor practice—the first in miserable weather this year—as if they were approaching a season opener.
“The momentum’s carried us through this week,” safety Sam Scofield said. “We know that if we lose, we can’t go to a bowl game. That’s our ultimate motivation. We’re excited for homecoming and all the festivities, but we’re just focused on Memphis and trying to win.”