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Tulane running back Dontrell Hilliard (26) tries to evade the grasp of a Navy defender during their match-up Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY TULANE ATHLETICS/PARKER WATERS

Although a 23-21 loss at Navy felt like anything but a moral victory to the Tulane football team, the Green Wave’s morale was OK before the team headed back to New Orleans on Saturday night.

The immediate prospects are frightening — a date with No. 2 Oklahoma looms Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma — but coach Willie Fritz and his players saw some good signs for the near future as they try to morph from cellar dwellers to American Athletic Conference contenders.

For Fritz, the best part was the way Tulane (1-1, 0-1 AAC) rebounded after falling behind 23-13 in the third quarter.

“There’s a lot of good things,” he said. “We took a lot of chances and we converted on some fourth-and-shorts. We had to kind of get ourselves back in the game, and we did with a few conversions. Our guys really fought back. I’m proud of their effort.”

Two years ago, before Fritz arrived, Tulane held Navy to 291 yards and still lost 31-14 in Annapolis, Maryland. This time, the Wave limited the Midshipmen (2-0, 1-0 AAC) to 326 yards — just 76 in the second half and 19 in the fourth quarter.

Unlike in 2015, Tulane was one big play away from ending the nation’s longest regular-season home winning streak, which the Midshipmen stretched to 15.

“The defense played a really good game,” said linebacker Rae Juan Marbley, who had a team-high 11 tackles and forced the fumble that teammate Roderic Teamer returned for a touchdown. “We knew we had to come out and be really physical and really nasty and gritty, We had a real good scheme, and we executed it pretty well.”

Navy, which converted three of its first five third-down attempts, went 3 of 10 the rest of the way after leading the nation in third-down conversion percentage a year ago. On the Midshipmen’s last two attempts, cornerback Donnie Lewis stuffed an option pitch for a 6-yard loss, and linebacker Zach Harris was not fooled by a misdirection pitch, stopping it for a 1-yard gain.

Playing the fourth quarter without Teamer, who was injured, Tulane held Navy scoreless — even when the Midshipmen took over at the Wave 34 following a failed fourth-down try.

“We were ready for what they did,” defensive end Ade Aruna said. “We knew they were going to come out with a bunch of tricks, but we feel pretty good about the way we handled it.”

They were left lamenting a few unlucky breaks. When freshman Chase Kuerschen forced a fumble at the goal line, the ball squirted around in the end zone before Navy tackle Andrew Wood corralled it for a touchdown.

It just as easily could have been a touchback.

“I was just at the right place at the right time,” Wood said. “We had a run called and I saw the ball flopping around and guys grabbing for it. I just reached for it.”

The final missed opportunity was the most painful. Fritz blamed himself for sending out the punt-return team after Navy rushed its punt team on the field at the end of a timeout with 2:10 left, leading to a penalty when the ball was snapped before several defenders reached the sideline.

But Marbley refused to single out a specific moment for the loss — Tulane’s 18th in its last 20 conference games.

“You can't really narrow the game down to one single play,” he said. “There were certain plays we could have made better tackles or the offensive line could have made better blocks. It's everything in general just coming together that gave us the outcome of the game.”

Lagniappe

Marbley, Harris and Luke Jackson, Tulane’s top three linebackers, combined for 26 tackles, 2½ sacks 3½ tackles for loss. ... Cornerback Parry Nickerson’s 11th career interception moved him into a tie for seventh place in Tulane history with Davis Skehan. ... Redshirt freshman wide receiver/punt returner Jacob Robertson played for the first time after missing the opener against Grambling with a minor injury. … Defensive end Peter Woullard started in place of free safety Taris Shenall as Tulane loaded up at the line of scrimmage to contain the triple option.