Halloween has a reputation for evoking scary thoughts.
But nothing in Tulane coach Curtis Johnson’s worst nightmares could have matched what unfolded in the first half of Friday night’s 38-14 loss to Cincinnati at Yulman Stadium.
The Green Wave (2-6, 1-3 American), fresh off its second open date of the month, was overwhelmed by the Bearcats (5-3, 3-1) for most of the first 30 minutes. Cincinnati averaged more than nine yards per play, showing off its speed in the open field, racing past Tulane defenders as the lead snowballed to as many as 24 points.
Although Tulane eventually sliced that lead to 10 early in the second half, the cushion ultimately proved too much to overcome.
Former Edna Karr standout Munchie Legaux led the way as the fleet-footed Bearcats quarterback completed 16 of 24 passes for 211 yards and three touchdowns in his first New Orleans appearance since 2009. The Bearcats rushing game produced 265 yards on 35 carries, highlighted by Rod Moore’s 124 yards on 15 carries.
Legaux was a key instrument in a thorough takedown of Tulane, which made mistakes in all three phases.
Yet, oddly enough, Tulane made a statement at the game’s onset.
After Trevor Simms booted the opening kickoff into the festive student section, Cincinnati tried to take a shot on the game’s first snap as quarterback Gunner Kiel launched a 40-yard pass at the back end of the Green Wave defense. But the secondary bracketed the Bearcats’ only deep receiver, allowing cornerback Parry Nickerson to snag his fourth interception of the season.
That was the trick. Cincinnati’s statement turned out to be the treat.
Tulane followed the interception by rolling up an 11-play, 55-yard drive, moving inside the Bearcats’ 5-yard line. But Tulane came away empty after Tanner Lee got sacked on a fourth-and-goal bootleg.
All traces of momentum abruptly changed sidelines. The rest of the half followed suit.
“It was critical,” Johnson said. “That was all me.”
Legaux’s entrance ignited the Bearcats offense, and he played the rest of the way. The sixth-year senior directed a trio of consecutive scoring drives, starting with a 30-yard field goal and then marching the Bearcats to two touchdowns and 149 yards in eight plays, taking a commanding 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
“My hat goes off to Munchie,” Johnson said. “He played very, very well for them.”
Tulane played without its two best defensive ends during the onslaught. Tyler Gilbert was ejected from the game after a targeting call on Cincinnati’s second drive, while starter Royce LaFrance was held out of action with what Johnson called “formational” issues since the Green Wave leaned more on the 3-4 setup without Gilbert.
“Tyler is one of our better players, and he was ejected,” Johnson said. “He is on in every package, and he’s a senior leader. If we had a captain, he would be the captain. It left our defense a bit in la-la land.”
Just when it appeared the Green Wave may be in position to turn a corner, forcing UC’s first punt midway through the second quarter, the ugly became embarrassing. Punt returner Teddy Veal attempted to catch a punt over his back shoulder at the Tulane 5-yard line, but it bounced off his hands instead, rolling into the end zone, where Eric Wilson recovered for a touchdown.
“Special teams hurt us,” Johnson said. “The decision on the punt was tough.”
It was emblematic of a half when everything Tulane could do wrong, it did. By halftime, more than three-quarters of the announced 21,414 fans had cleared out of Yulman Stadium as Tulane lost its first home game since it fell Sept. 6 for its stadium unveiling against Georgia Tech.
While Tulane’s defensive and special teams mistakes were prominent, its continually unproductive offense may be even more cause for alarm.
Despite the return of Lee, who threw for 205 yards and completed 24 of 35 passes, Tulane’s offense never got fully rolling. After averaging just 11 points in its previous four games, the Green Wave couldn’t crack the scoreboard against the nation’s 115th-ranked defense until the third quarter.
The offense suddenly awoke in the third quarter, spurred by Lee completing his first six passes en route to consecutive touchdown drives, first capped by a Lazedrick Thompson 19-yard run and then a 10-yard Charles Jones catch nine minutes later to slice UC’s lead to 24-14.
It was the closest the Green Wave could get.
Two plays after Legaux converted a critical fourth down, he lofted a perfectly placed throw to Seth Washington, who pulled down a one-handed catch in the corner of the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown, effectively killing any comeback efforts.
With four games remaining, including next week’s 2:30 p.m. kickoff at Houston, the Green Wave’s margin of error to reach its second consecutive bowl game is gone.
Before even reaching November, Tulane’s bid at its first back-to-back winning seasons since 1998 has been dashed, and its once-lofty goals are nearly gone.
“We are so young, we have to keep our goals short term,” Johnson said. “We have to play quarter by quarter and play by play.”