Tulane center Nathan Sheinle couldn’t feel things starting to roll downhill, but there was never a letdown.
Saturday against Houston, the much-improved offensive line put together its most complete performance of the season, against one of its toughest opponents (the Cougars entered the game as The AAC’s leading defense), helping Tulane pile up 361 yards en route to a 31-24 victory.
But it’s what didn’t happen that stood out to coach Curtis Johnson. No penalties, no glaring breakdowns and no turnover-inducing mistakes.
“We just didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot, and that means a lot,” Sheinle said. “We didn’t have any penalties. We only had one or two turnovers. Our coach has been telling us we have a very good offense, and it was just the mental mistakes that hurt us.”
The unit wasn’t perfect — it struggled to generate consistent running holes until the latter stages of the second half — but it was a far cry from the one that left quarterback Tanner Lee running for cover during the first month of this season.
Johnson said Saturday’s game featured the best Tulane pass-protection in his three-year tenure, highlighted by only one Houston sack and allowing Lee ample time to complete third-down passes across the field.
A week after converting just 3 of 13 third downs against Cincinnati, the Green Wave converted 10 of 16 on Saturday, critically extending drives and keeping the Cougars offense off the field.
Never was the offensive line featured more prominently than when Tulane squeezed off nearly five minutes of the clock without throwing a single pass. The Green Wave ran on nine consecutive plays, gaining three first downs, setting up Andrew DiRocco’s 25-yard field goal and leaving Houston only 3:24 seconds to come back from 14 points down.
“I think those young kids are really playing really well for (offensive line) coach (John) McDonnell,” Johnson said. “It’s three sophomores, one senior and a junior.”
Tanner Lee broke Ryan Griffin’s freshman touchdown record (nine, set in in 2009) on a first-quarter corner route to freshman Teddy Veal.
The 12-yard score was the first of Lee’s three touchdown passes of the day, preceding Dontrell Hilliard’s 63-yard scamper midway through the second quarter and a fade route to Leondre James in the third quarter.
“I thought he didn’t just manage the game but he seized some opportunities,” Johnson said. “We got down on the goal line and he threw a fade route perfect to Leondre. A couple of the critical first downs we got were on third-and-8 or third-and-7 and he just made some plays that I haven’t seen since Ryan Griffin.”
After throwing nine interceptions in his first four games, Lee snapped a streak of more than 70 consecutive attempts without a turnover. Adrian McDonald picked him off in the final minute of the half.
But it didn’t reopen the turnover floodgates. Instead, Lee completed 11 of 12 second-half passes for 99 yards and never put Tulane’s offense in a precarious position again.
“I think it was just about how we practiced this week and really approached a lot of our weaknesses as far as third downs and red zones and penalties,” Lee said. “We did that and I think we won the penalty battle, the turnover battle and time of possession. We were 10-of-16 this week and all of those things correlate to a win. Of course we had to make it interesting.”
Tulane doesn’t wait long to make its mark in the turnover column.
The Green Wave started its home opener recovering a fumble against Georgia Tech on the game’s opening snap. Last week, it repeated the feat when Parry Nickerson nabbed an interception off of Cincinnati on the opening play.
Saturday, Nico Marley delivered a hit across the middle on receiver Deonte Greenberry, forcing a fumble and allowing safety Darion Monroe to recover it at the Houston 26-yard line. It set up Tulane’s first touchdown of the game and a 7-0 lead.
A drive later, Sam Scofield pulled down a tipped a pass for an interception, clinching Tulane’s seventh multiple-turnover game of the season.
Nickerson’s two fourth-quarter interceptions capped an opportunistic day.
“We are just trying to make plays,” Nickerson said. “It’s just what we do every game.”