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Tulane coach Willie Fritz gestures to an official during Saturday's game against Cincinnati at Yulman Stadium.

ADVOCATE PHOTO BY A.J. SISCO

What happens when a resistible force meets a movable object?

Tulane (3-6, 1-4 American Athletic Conference) and East Carolina (2-7, 1-4) will find out Saturday night in Greenville, North Carolina, with the Green Wave trying to get its struggling running game back on track against what is statistically the nation’s worst defense.

Tulane, which has lost four in a row, is favored by 5 points even though it is winless away from home and is coming off its two lowest rushing outputs of the year.

The reason is simple. East Carolina has been mind-bogglingly bad defensively, allowing an average of 565.9 yards, ranking seventh-to-last nationally in rushing defense (238.8 yards per game), second-to-last in passing defense (327.1 yards) and dead last in scoring defense (46.6).

After giving up 614 yards in an embarrassing season-opening home loss to FCS power James Madison, the Pirates went on the road and yielded the exact same yardage total to West Virginia in a 56-20 defeat.

It did not get better from there. Virginia Tech hung 64 points on them, gaining 675 yards. Connecticut piled up 596 yards as East Carolina won a high-scoring affair, 41-38. South Florida and Temple dialed up more than 500 yards in 61-31 and 34-10 pastings before Central Florida became the third team to surpass 600 yards in a 63-21 laugher.

The Pirates have held back-to-back opponents to fewer than 500 yards, but that “improvement” comes with a caveat. BYU, which managed 421 yards in a 33-17 loss to East Carolina, is 123rd out of 129 FBS teams in total offense. Houston, which had 472 yards last Saturday in a 52-27 rout, managed that total in only 48 snaps.

East Carolina is giving up 7.69 yards per play, the worst total in college football. Tulane beat Tulsa, the team with the second-worst figure, 62-28 at Yulman Stadium on Oct. 7, but has won since then, failing to match the 488 rushing yards it had against the Golden Hurricane in its next three conference games combined.

“We have to create vertical and horizontal schemes and we have to run that inside zone play and the stretch play,” coach Willie Fritz said. “In order to do that, we have to win those battles up front and see the holes.”

Even the return of center Junior Diaz, who missed the Memphis game with an injury, did not help against Cincinnati. Tulane’s running backs gained 57 yards on 25 carries, a paltry average of 2.6. That issue killed them at the end, when the Bearcats stuffed Dontrell Hilliard on third-and-2 at the 15-yard line, forcing the Wave into a go-ahead field goal attempt it missed rather than getting a new set of downs in the final minute-and-a-half.

People are catching on (to what Tulane is doing) and making corrections,” Diaz said. “We have to make our own corrections and keep playing hard. We just had a couple of mistakes and miscommunication issues.”

The caliber of the defense the Wave will face should help. East Carolina allows a full yard more per carry (5.6) than Cincinnati (4.6).

Success on the ground will open up even better opportunities in a formally dormant passing game that has come alive behind quarterback Jonathan Banks in the last three weeks. Since the start of the fourth quarter against South Florida, he has thrown for 527 yards and five touchdowns with zero interceptions.

“It’s a process,” said wide receiver Jabril Clewis, who had a season’s best five catches against Cincinnati. “We’re getting more and more comfortable as the season goes along.”

Lagniappe

Freshman defensive end Cameron Sample did not practice Tuesday after getting hurt in the first half on Saturday. Fritz said junior Robert Kennedy, who replaced him, would play extensively against East Carolina. … Senior linebacker Luke Jackson is one of 20 semifinalists for the inaugural Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year award, which focuses on a player’s leadership on and off the field. Jackson, who overcame testicular cancer as a freshman, is sixth on the team with 41 tackles and has a team-best 3½ sacks.