Blown out by Duke, Tulane’s coaches and players weren’t blowing up their chests as they talked about traveling to No. 15 Georgia Tech.
They just want to play better and see what happens. As a four-touchdown underdog coming off a 30-point home loss, that’s really all they could say as they prepared to face the Yellow Jackets on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“In the first half (against Duke), I looked at the bench, and people’s heads were down and eyes were cloudy, almost like it was over — and it wasn’t over yet,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “I want to see us progress and do the things we do well. If we can do those things, I’ll be happy.”
It won’t be easy.
Georgia Tech, the first Top 25 team Tulane has faced in Johnson’s four-year tenure, is rolling under coach Paul Johnson. The Yellow Jackets closed an 11-3 season in 2014 by beating No. 18 Clemson 28-6 and No. 8 Georgia 30-24, losing to undefeated Florida State 37-35 in the ACC title game and then pasting No. 8 Mississippi State 49-34 in the Orange Bowl.
Georgia Tech crushed Alcorn State 69-6 in its opener last Thursday, leading 34-0 at the end of the first quarter before the starters left the game.
The Yellow Jackets, a mediocre 28-25 from 2010 to 2013, were picked to defend their Coastal Division title at ACC Media Days. So much for the carping before the start of 2014 that Paul Johnson’s program had become stagnant and his run-based, triple-option offense was outdated.
“I don’t know if there’s a weakness,” Curtis Johnson said. “When I watched the Mississippi State game last year, I didn’t see any. The quarterback is phenomenal. They’re a very good team.”
That’s why Tulane faces a much bigger challenge than even a year ago, when it led Georgia Tech for most of the first half and trailed 24-21 at halftime before losing 38-21. Those Yellow Jackets needed a late fumble recovery and a long touchdown drive to beat Georgia Southern 42-38 the following week.
This version is loaded and appears ready to build on last season’s sterling finish. Quarterback Justin Thomas and three senior offensive linemen return for a team that led the nation in rushing (342.1 yards per game). Eight defensive starters are back, too.
Thomas keys the offense. He gained 1,086 yards while averaging 5.7 yards per carry a year ago and also threw for 17 touchdowns when opponents overloaded to stop the triple option. The Jackets lost almost all of their running backs, but freshman Marcus Marshall ripped through Alcorn State for 184 yards on only eight carries.
“That’s one thing about Paul Johnson,” Curtis Johnson said. “He knows the answers to the questions, so we just have to hang on, try to get some turnovers and hope we can slow those guys down. We have to play assignment football and be very disciplined.”
Just as with Duke in the opener, Tulane likely won’t catch Georgia Tech sleeping. Duke coach David Cutcliffe reminded his defense repeatedly about how the Wave had rushed for more than 200 yards against the Blue Devils last season, getting them fired up to stop the ground game.
Paul Johnson lit into his team after it won at Yulman Stadium last season, saying the performance was “not acceptable.” Georgia Tech committed three turnovers, including one on the opening snap that set up a Tulane touchdown. The Wave also scored on a 24-yard run by receiver Teddy Veal and a 61-yard pass by quarterback Tanner Lee.
Paul Johnson has been harping on those shortcomings all week.
“We need to win the turnover battle,” he said. “A year ago down there, we were terrible in that aspect. Try not to give up the big plays defensively. If we do those things, we’ll be OK.”
For Tulane, it’s a matter of maintaining self-belief despite the rough opener. And the task became more difficult Friday after the team announced safety Darion Monroe, a four-year starter, and backup linebacker Eric Bowie would serve a one-game suspension for “a violation of team policy.”
At least the Wave can point to some positives from its game against Georgia Tech last year, when Thomas completed only 3 of 8 passes for 15 yards and the Jackets had to work hard for their 344 rushing yards.
Take out Lee’s three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, along with a blocked punt, and the teams were even.
“It’s very important to start fast,” Lee said. “If we can start fast, that will enable us to put up a lot of points and we should do well.”
The NCAA cleared freshman cornerback Dedrick Shy to play against Georgia Tech after flagging his academic records before the Duke game. Johnson said he was unsure whether Shy, who ended preseason drills as a top backup, would be ready to play this Saturday because he did not take reps with the first- or second-team defense while he was in limbo. … Johnson said two players are academically ineligible for the rest of the year: sophomore backup offensive tackle Kenneth Santa Marina from McDonogh 35 and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Braynon Edwards from Miami. Neither Marina, who is recovering from a minor knee injury he suffered in camp, nor Edwards would have been expected to play against Georgia Tech. … The forecast in Atlanta is for a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms, so Tulane spent time practicing with a wet ball Thursday.