Feeling some heat for the first time since his Tulane tenure began in 2012, coach Curtis Johnson recalled a similar experience when he was the receivers coach at Miami nearly 20 years ago.
Coming off its first bowl game in 11 seasons, Tulane (2-6, 1-3 American Athletic Conference) will lock up its 12th losing record in 14 years unless it wins at Houston (5-3, 3-1) as an 18-point underdog on Saturday. Still, the negativity Johnson is facing now pales in comparison to what Miami’s staff faced in 1997 in Coral Gables, Florida.
With freshmen like future stars Reggie Wayne and Santana Moss accounting for a whopping 103 of Miami’s 187 receptions, the Hurricanes slumped to 5-6 after contending for the national championship almost annually for more than a decade.
Freshmen have made 87 of Tulane’s 146 receptions, an even higher percentage than that Miami team while the struggling Green Wave has failed to surpass 14 points for five consecutive games.
“It reminds me so much of that year at Miami,” Johnson said. “Gosh, it was growing pains. Imagine the University of Miami winning the national championship a couple of years prior (actually six) and going 5-6. We had some games where we couldn’t do anything. Then the ’98 team got better, the ’99 team got better, the 2000 team came down here and won the Sugar Bowl and the next year was the national championship.
“I’m not saying we’re going to win the national championship, but sometimes you take a program like that, it takes a little bit of time.”
Those young Hurricanes lost to FSU 47-0 and to Syracuse 33-13 in 1997.
Tulane has fallen to Duke 47-13 and recently lost to Cincinnati 38-14 on Halloween night at Yulman Stadium, relying on a gaggle of freshmen at every skill position on offense. The Wave will be without its second leading running back, Lazedrick Thompson, for sure against Houston and likely will not have top rusher Sherman Badie available after both of them sustained injured ankles against Cincinnati.
Tulane’s final four opponents are either tied for the American lead (Houston, Memphis, East Carolina) or are right behind the frontrunners (Temple).
Yet, Johnson continues to stress the positives. With such a young offensive team, he feels he has no other choice. On many of the snaps versus Cincinnati, redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Lee either handed off to true freshman running back Dontrell Hilliard or threw to an all-freshman core of receivers.
“We knew going into this year it could be a little bit like this,” Johnson said. “The one thing I tell the staff is you gotta be positive with them, you gotta be positive with them. If you watch it, there are a lot of positives. It’s just overcoming the negatives. That’s what we can’t do.”
Despite Tulane’s record, Johnson can point to plenty of pluses:
-- The Wave averages 166.0 rushing yards, the third-highest total in the American and easily Tulane’s best output since Matt Forte rushed for 2,127 yards in 2007. Hilliard joined Badie and Thompson last week as backs who have gained 100 or more yards in a game this year.
-- Lee, who threw nine interceptions in his first four starts, tossed zero against Cincinnati. He has attempted 52 consecutive passes without a pick.
-- Tulane ranks ninth nationally in turnovers forced with 21. Redshirt freshman cornerback Parry Nickerson, the only new starter in the secondary, has four interceptions.
The toughest part is remaining patient. Tulane has killed itself with untimely errors all year, and the latest was a muffed punt inside the 5-yard line by true freshman returner Teddy Veal that handed a touchdown to Cincinnati before halftime. His mistake made the score 24-0, a deficit that proved impossible to overcome even though Tulane pulled within 24-14 after its first two possessions of the third quarter.
“We were just trying to motivate each other at halftime,” cornerback Lorenzo Doss said. “That’s the thing CJ stresses all the time — don’t get down on one another and stay positive throughout the game no matter what happens.”
Tulane could be in for more tough times at TDECU Stadium on Saturday. Houston has rebounded from a slow start to win three straight behind sophomore wide receiver-turned-quarterback Greg Ward, Jr., who replaced ineffective starter John O’Korn and led the Cougars to a win at Memphis and easy victories against Temple and South Florida.
Houston ranks first in the American in scoring defense (16.0 ppg), second in yards allowed (314.4) and third in rushing offense. The Cougars are one of the eight teams in America that has forced more turnovers than Tulane with 24.
Johnson is not giving up on the season, but he says he knows better times are ahead.
“When you leave the game and the alumni’s yelling at you that you stink, I look to where we will be two years from now,” he said. “Last year, I was the best coach in American (in local perception), but unfortunately those guys are gone. Now we are just where we are. We are trying to build a program and we’re in a new league.”