Coming off a dominant, breakthrough performance, the Tulane football team’s biggest opponent this week could be itself.
The Green Wave (3-2), favored by double digits on the road for the first time in 14 years, cannot assume anything will come as easily in a nonconference game at Florida international (3-2) as it did in a 62-28 tattooing of Tulsa.
“I don’t think Tulane’s to the point where we can start resting on our laurels in any way, shape or form,” coach Willie Fritz said. “The thing I do is just be consistent. We do the same thing in practice almost every day. Our guys know our schedule and our expectations and we’re not going to change what we’re doing. We need to keep improving. We have a long way to go.”
They’ve already come a long way, as indicated by some mind-numbing numbers against Tulsa. The Wave’s 488 yards rushing were its most since 1944, when it rolled to 504 against Clemson, and the first time it reached 400 on the ground against an FBS opponent since 1947 against Auburn.
“Even I wasn’t born then,” Fritz said.
Tulane’s average of 289 yards rushing puts it on pace to break the school record of 272.6 set in 1931. The next-best total was 229.7 in 1966.
Perhaps it's hard for players to not to get a big head with stats like those. But that is where Fritz and his assistants come in. They kept their intensity high in Tuesday’s practice, Tulane’s first full workout in preparation for FIU.
A Yulman Stadium primetime matchup with No. 18 South Florida is looming on Oct. 21, but an unexpected loss Saturday would dampen that anticipation quickly.
“They preached to us to not get complacent and stay humble,” center Junior Diaz said. “There’s still a lot of work to do. There are a lot of good teams in our conference and on our schedule, so we just have to keep working hard like we’ve been doing. We’ve got to treat it like FIU is the best team we are going to play.”
The Panthers present some real concerns even though their résumé is shaky, with three close wins against Alcorn State, Rice and Charlotte and lopsided losses to Central Florida and Middle Tennessee.
Quarterback Alex McGough, a four-year starter, is the second-leading passer in school history with 7,409 yards. He has completed 61.2 percent of his passes and averaged 223.2 yards.
“I’m sure (McGough will) get to an NFL camp some place,” Fritz said. “He has a quick release, strong arm and is smart.”
Running back Alex Gardner, another four-year starter, is FIU’s career rushing leader with 2,578 yards. Although his average per carry is a modest 4.2 this season, he picked up 5.1 yards per pop last season and nearly gained 1,000 yards.
Wide receiver Thomas Owens is coming off back-to-back 100-yard games against Charlotte (seven catches, 101 yards) and Middle Tennessee (11 catches, 162 yards).
New FIU coach Butch Davis, whose previous head coaching stops were North Carolina, the Cleveland Browns and the University of Miami, uses a balanced, pro-style offense that is radically different from the run-heavy, throwing challenged teams Tulane has faced primarily this year.
Linebacker Rae Juan Marbley, who leads the Wave with 37 tackles, believes the defense will be ready.
“We’re confident but not arrogant or cocky,” he said. “There’s a fine line between the two. We played a pretty good game against Tulsa, so we have to keep that in the back of our mind and keep that taste of winning on our tongue and do the same things we did to prepare to win the last two weeks.”
Fritz saw no evidence of a drop in focus during Tuesday’s practice. In particular, he pointed out running back Dontrell Hilliard, who was named the Louisiana Sportswriters Association offensive player of the week, setting personal bests with 175 yards and four touchdowns against Tulsa.
“Dontrell Hilliard looked like he was trying to earn his job in practice today,” Fritz said. “He was finishing every run, running 50 to 60 yards. The great teams I’ve been associated with have been player-led, and we’re getting closer. We’ve got some tough guys who are starting to take ownership of the program.”