Linebacker Nico Marley said Tuesday he had scrounged up eight tickets for family and friends to attend Tulane’s Yulman Stadium debut against Georgia Tech on Saturday. It was no easy accomplishment, but he found teammates willing to help him out for a special game in which the demand exceeds the supply for one of the few times in school history.
Although he understands the excitement, coach Curtis Johnson wants to make sure the hoopla and hysteria turn into an emotional lift rather than a liability. Tulane’s first on-campus game in 40 years won’t create fond memories for him if the Green Wave plays poorly.
“Having a young team, it’s going to be hard for us not to be distracted,” he said. “The coaches have talked about it, and we’re going to try to keep them as isolated as we can and keep them away from some of the stuff. But it’s going to be electric. We just have to calm them down and get them ready to play a football game.”
Two teams opened brand new stadiums last week with wildly divergent results. Baylor waxed undermanned SMU 45-0 at McLane Stadium, but Houston, an American Athletic Conference member like Tulane, belly-flopped as a favorite against UTSA at TDECU Stadium, needing a touchdown with 63 seconds left to avoid a shutout in an embarrassing 27-7 loss.
The Cougars, who led the NCAA in turnover margin last year, gave the ball away six times in front of a sellout crowd.
Johnson said he had not reminded his players of Houston’s experience.
“I try not to talk about others,” Johnson said. “Everybody reads the paper and is on social media, so I think they know what’s at stake. Coming off a loss last week, we just have to make sure we focus.”
That focus has been on fixing the defensive issues that plagued Tulane in its 38-31 double-overtime loss to Tulsa on Aug. 28. The offense played well, with redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Lee looking sharp in his college debut while redshirt freshman running back Sherman Badie ran for 215 yards.
The 551 yards the Wave allowed in regulation, though, was the most it has surrendered since 2012 and a huge difference from last year, when its final six opponents finished with fewer than 350 yards.
“When we’re in position, we’ve got to make the play,” said Marley, who missed some tackles he normally makes. “We can’t commit personal fouls, and the communication has to be there so everybody’s set and everybody’s on the same page.”
Georgia Tech is in a similar predicament. Sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas threw for 282 yards and two scores and ran for another 71 yards as the Yellow Jackets scored five touchdowns in nine series against Wofford of the Football Championship Subdivision. Still, the Terriers hung around until midway through the fourth quarter before Georgia Tech scored twice late to pull away for a 38-19 victory.
Wofford, an option team, rushed for 271 yards, including a 92-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
“We have to play better defensively,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “We missed a lot of tackles and had far too many missed assignments and let them possess the ball more than what we probably needed to do.”
His words almost mirrored Curtis Johnson’s. If the coaches’ takeaway from their opening performances is accurate, the team that figures out its defensive questions first will win.
“We just have to play assignment football this week,” Curtis Johnson said. “Those guys have to do their assignments to their best ability. If they can do that, we’ll have a chance to beat this team.”
Georgia Tech has lost to teams from outside the power five conferences in each of the last two years, falling to BYU 38-20 last season and Middle Tennessee 49-28 in 2012. Paul Johnson said he certainly was not taking Tulane lightly.
“They had every chance to win that first game and truthfully should have won it,” he said. “I’m sure they are going to be excited to open their stadium, and we’re excited to come and have another chance to play this week.”