When coach Curtis Johnson said Tulane did not play like it practiced during its 37-7 season-opening loss to Duke last Thursday, he was pointing his finger at just about everyone on the team.
The biggest surprise, though, was how the Green Wave came out weak at spots where it appeared to be strong in preseason camp. Outgained by a nearly 2-1 ratio, Tulane received little production from players and position groups that were supposed to have breakthrough years.
If nothing else, the Wave will look for dramatic improvement in those areas Saturday at 15th-ranked Georgia Tech.
Chief among them:
Tight end Trey Scott.
After a freshman season plagued by dropped passes, Scott caught everything in August practices, using his speed to get open down the seams and make a series of big plays as one of quarterback Tanner Lee’s favorite targets. Bursting with confidence, he said he hoped to catch more than 50 passes as a sophomore and become an All-American Athletic Conference selection.
Against Duke, though, he was virtually invisible. His lone reception went for 4 yards, and the only time Lee threw down the field to him, the ball ricocheted off tight coverage and turned into an interception.
Johnson said the slow start was a combination of Scott’s shortcomings and him simply not being targeted. Look for an adjustment against Georgia Tech when Scott, from the Atlanta suburb of Powder Springs, returns close to home.
“If I get targeted more this week, I’ll be happy with that, but I just want to win,” Scott said. “We just have to pick ourselves back up. It’s all about execution. Whatever they call, we have to execute it to the best of our ability.”
Defensive end Royce LaFrance.
LaFrance, who led Tulane with six sacks last year and was second on the team with 6½ sacks in 2013, reported to camp in the best shape of his career and motivated to put his inconsistencies of the past in the rear-view mirror. He was suspended for the opener last year and benched against Cincinnati for poor play.
Part of a front four that Johnson labeled a team strength at the end of preseason practice, LaFrance was supposed to have a chance to become the first Tulane player since 1981 to register double-digit sacks.
He had two tackles, no hurries and no sacks against Duke, which threw 44 times.
“It wasn’t good enough,” LaFrance said, referring to his performance and that of the defense overall. “I don’t know how to explain it. It was just a lot of missed tackles and missed assignments and stuff we need to work on. We all can progress and be a great defense.”
Actually, Tulane held Duke to 10 points for most of the first half and forced a three-and-out at the Blue Devils’ 16 with a little less than three minutes left in the second quarter. The Wave then jumped offside on the punt, handing a first down to Duke.
The Blue Devils moved up and down the field the rest of the way.
LaFrance vowed improvement.
“We always have confidence in ourselves,” he said. “We came out with a fire against Duke. If we can just keep that fire, we’ll be good.”
The offensive line.
After improving incrementally the past two years from awful to average, the offensive line returned four players with a total of 77 career starts. For the first time in Johnson’s tenure, Tulane appeared ready to assert its will on the ground, opening up holes for productive running backs Sherman Badie, Dontrell Hilliard and Lazedrick Thompson, who combined for 1,673 rushing yards last year.
The blocking never arrived against Duke, which held Thompson, Hilliard, Badie and Rob Kelley to 58 yards on 17 carries. Tulane’s 25 rushing yards as a team were its second-lowest total in the past three years — 1 yard more than it had against East Carolina in 2014.
“If we could get back out there tomorrow, I’d love to play tomorrow,” junior guard Chris Taylor said as he talked about atoning for the opening performance. “Some of the guys may have gotten frustrated (against Duke), but we came together and talked about it. We’re all excited to get back on the field.”
The Blue Devils sacked Lee four times, but Johnson blamed Lee for two of them, insisting the protection was decent.
“The one thing I want is to run the ball a lot better,” Johnson said. “I want to see some consistency there.”