Willie Fritz could not contain his excitement when he walked into the interview room after Tulane’s dramatic 20-17 victory against Houston on Saturday night.
“All right!” he screamed, pumping his arm. “Better than the last one.”
That is life in college football, where even the most well-prepared teams seldom play the same way each week. Rebounding from a deflating 17-16 loss to American Athletic Conference cellar-dweller Cincinnati two weeks earlier at Yulman Stadium, the Green Wave followed an overtime win at East Carolina with a resounding win against a perennial power.
The Wave (5-6, 3-4 AAC) should be just as excited for Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff at SMU (6-5, 3-4), needing a win in the regular-season finale to earn its second bowl bid in the last 15 years. Tulane also can match its number of conference victories (four) in its first three years of AAC play combined.
“This will be an easy week to coach,” Fritz said. “We have a big opportunity.”
SMU has lost three in a row, but the defeats came to teams with a combined record of 25-5, including undefeated Central Florida and AAC West winner Memphis. The Mustangs, who are bowl bound for the first time since 2012, will be looking to take out their frustrations on senior day.
For Tulane, the stakes are more significant.
"It's big,” said senior linebacker Luke Jackson, who broke up a fourth-down pass on Houston's final offensive play to preserve Tulane’s lead. “We’ve got to continue building on what we've been doing the last two weeks. Obviously we have to have a big game next week at SMU and then see what happens from there.”
Fritz’s brief outburst notwithstanding, his players reflected the even-keel approach their coach prefers. They knew how important beating a team like Houston was for the program, but they understand it will mean much less if they cannot back it up by beating SMU.
"We just can't get too happy over the Houston game,” said quarterback Jonathan Banks, who accounted for 319 yards passing and running. “We have to come ready for SMU, because if we don't win this game, we're not bowl eligible. We have to do a good job of preparation this week."
Wide receiver Terren Encalade played down his own performance despite having a career-best 186 yards on eight catches, including the winning 64-yard touchdown with 6:13 left and a clinching third-down grab that allowed Tulane to run out the clock.
But the possibility of becoming bowl eligible perked him up.
“Oh yeah, we're playing for a bowl game right now, and that's the main goal,” he said. “We have to get one win at SMU. We have to work harder, prepare harder and execute what we have to do.”
If Tulane’s topsy-turvy season is any indication, the next one will come to the final few possessions. The Wave has played five games that could have gone either way, beating Army in the final minutes, surviving the extra session at East Carolina and holding off Houston while losing to Navy and Cincinnati by a combined three points.
“It's a tough league,” Fritz said. “Everybody's pretty good. If you're not on point, you are not going to win, so I'm just happy with the outcome.”
For the 12 seniors, it meant even more, even if one of them did not realize it at first.
"It wasn't too emotional for me,” Jackson said. “But after we sang the (post-game) alma mater, I saw all my family on the sideline — my mom and my sister and all of them were crying. It kind of made me realize how special the last (home) game was.”
Jackson hopes it was just the starting point.
“We can even play better,” he said. “They were all close games. We just have to make sure we finish them and beat the teams that we need to beat.”