TULSA, Okla. — Tulane answered a host of questions in a positive way Thursday night in its American Athletic Conference debut.
Unfortunately for the Wave, though, the result was another crushing loss out of state. Tulsa scored on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Dane Evans in the second overtime and intercepted redshirt freshman Tanner Lee in the end zone to end the game, winning 38-31 on Thursday night at Chapman Stadium.
Tulane lost for the 16th time in a row in games played outside of Louisiana and for the fifth time in six games since starting 6-2 last season. The formula was completely different than the second half of 2013, when an anemic offense was the culprit, but the result was the same.
Senior safety Sam Scofield, who made a team-high 14 tackles, labeled it the toughest loss he has experienced at Tulane. Tulsa tied the score for the first time with 2:53 left in regulation and finally went ahead in double overtime.
“It really is,” Scofield said. “We had the lead the whole time. It’s a horrible feeling.”
Plenty of things went right for the Wave, but the defense as a whole was not up to the same level as in 2013 after losing six of its top nine tacklers plus run-stopping interior lineman Chris Davenport. Tulsa, which finished 100th in total offense last season, rolled up 551 yards in regulation and scored 10 points in overtime.
“We just have to do our part,” Scofield said. “We can’t allow 600 yards of offense. It’s horrible. We couldn’t get off the field. This loss is on us. We have to play better on defense.”
Evans, who completed a measly 43 percent of his passes last season, rebounded from an erratic start to finish 31 of 53 for 438 yards and four touchdowns. He was sacked only once — by freshman tackle Eldrick Washington — and the return of defensive end Royce LaFrance from a first-half suspension did nothing to improve the pass rush.
“We have to get more pressure from our front four,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “I don’t think we played as well as we could have. Our secondary played a little more loose in coverage than we are accustomed to. We just have to figure out how to get more pressure.”
The loss overshawdowed a terrific debut for the offense.
Lee, from Jesuit High School in New Orleans, proved he was the real deal in his first college action, throwing for two touchdowns in the first half. He added another scoring toss in the fourth quarter on a 60-yard strike to a wide open Xavier Rush, and the coaches continually showed confidence in him by dialing up passes on third-and-short.
“Today was a successful day for our offense,” Lee said. “We did some good things and we learned a lot. The young guys who got in the game gained some valuable experience.”
Redshirt freshman running back Sherman Badie raced for a 90-yard touchdown in the second quarter, the longest rush by a Tulane player in 21 years. He almost added a 75-yarder in the third quarter, getting tripped up with no one in front of him as the Wave found the breakaway threat it has lacked for a long time, and he broke off a 73-yarder late in the fourth.
“I listened to my coach, who said don’t try anything crazy, stupid and just play the game and play slow,” Badie said. “That’s what I did, and eventually it just popped on me. It took me a little time to get my feel, and once I did, I just felt comfortable.”
He finished with 215 yards, the most by a Tulane freshman in his debut since at least 1989 according to Tulane officials and the first 200-yard rushing game since Andre Anderson against UTEP in 2008.
A tight end (freshman Charles Scott) and a fullback (Dante Butler) had touchdowns, adding two elements to the offense that were invisible in coach Curtis Johnson’s first two years.
The ball-hawking secondary picked up where it left off last year, intercepting two passes after finishing among the nation’s top 10 in that category in 2013.
The Wave jumped out to a 14-0 lead midway through the second quarter, and the game might not have been as close without some critical defensive errors.
With reeling Tulsa about to face third-and-long after falling behind 14-0, linebacker Nico Marley was called for a late hit that gave the Golden Hurricane a first down at their 39.
Five plays later, Keevan Lucas raced past safety Leonard Davis to haul in a 43-yard, underthrown touchdown pass to pull Tulsa within 14-7.
With Tulane up 21-7 late in the first half, Lee fumbled on a sack deep in Tulsa territory, and a potential three-score lead soon turned into 21-14 courtesy of another defensive miscue. A Tulsa play that started at its own 16-yard line in the final minute of the first half became an 84-yard touchdown when Keevan Lucas caught a pass in the middle of the field and safety Brandon LeBeau whiffed on his tackle, allowing Lucas to sail the rest of the way into the end zone with 37 seconds left.
Just like that, the comfortable margin was gone, and the second half was a nail-biter as Tulane’s defense struggled to stop Tulsa.
“We had a couple of blown coverages and freak plays,” Scofield said. “The one at the end of the half can’t happen. It can’t happen. We just have to learn from it and get better.”
Tulsa closed to 21-20 on a pair of field goals. Tulane increased its lead to 28-20 when receiver Xavier Rush took advantage of a busted coverage to score on an easy 60-yard pass-and-catch from Lee.
Tulsa responded with a 77-yard touchdown drive, scoring on a fourth-and-goal pass in the corner of the end zone to Lucas with 2:52 left. The Golden Hurricane tied it at 28 for the first time on a 2-point conversion, with Josh Atkinson dragging his foot just in bounds in the same corner.
When Andrew DiRocco sent a 21-yard field goal wide left from the right hash in the final two minutes, Tulane appeared to be in deep trouble.
Tulsa quickly moved to the Tulane 49, but a dropped pass forced the Golden Hurricane to punt. Lee then completed a critical third-down pass from his 17 to keep the Wave from having to punt, and the game went to overtime.
DiRocco nailed a 30-yard field goal from the right hash on the other end of the field to start overtime, and Tulane forced Tulsa to settle for a tying field goal after the Golden Hurricane had first-and-goal at the 4.
Tulsa’s touchdown and Lee’s interception, which he threw right to Tulsa’s Demarco Nelson in in the middle of the field, made that stand irrelevant.
“It’s extremely tough,” Lee said. “I felt like we had the game. We had a good call on the play, but I just didn’t see the guy, and he made a good play on the ball.”