After hitting rock bottom in a 49-10 loss at Temple last week, Tulane’s offensive line needs to improve dramatically, or the Green Wave will get rocked by Houston, too.
The No. 24 Cougars (5-0, 2-0 American Athletic) enter Friday night’s game at Yulman Stadium fresh off their first ranking in the Associated Press poll since 2011. The Wave (2-3, 1-1) is coming off its worst yardage output in coach Curtis Johnson’s four-year tenure and will start backup quarterback Devin Powell instead of Tanner Lee, who was knocked out of the Temple game with a concussion.
The signature play in that lopsided loss came midway through the second quarter, when the Owls rushed three and dropped eight as Lee set up to throw.
Defensive end Nate Smith used a spin move to beat right tackle Todd Jacquet and also got past right guard Chris Taylor, who tried to help out. Lee stepped up in the pocket to avoid getting hit and went right into the arms of defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, who beat the double team of center Junior Diaz and left guard Nathan Shienle with ease. The other pass rusher, end Praise Martin-Oguike, ran around left tackle Arturo Uzdavinis and reached out to grab Lee just before Ioannidis finished him off.
Five blockers, no blocking.
It was one of four sacks for Temple, which limited Tulane to 110 yards and eight first downs while blitzing only 12 percent of the time, according to Johnson’s numbers.
“(The linemen) just got whipped,” he said. “It was a butt-kicking. We just have to play tougher, but we shouldn’t ever get whipped like that.”
Three of the linemen involved in that second-quarter sack — Taylor, Shienle and Uzdavinis — are three-year starters. Jacquet is a redshirt junior.
With the exception of Shienle, who was limited in practice this week by an arm injury, all of them will start against Houston along with Diaz, a redshirt freshman. The coaches don’t believe the answer is changing personnel, with three freshmen and untested redshirt sophomore Brandon Godfrey among the top reserves.
“The backups are really young,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if we’re in a position this year to do that. A year from now, I can make a lot of changes, but right now I don’t want to throw the young kids into the fire.”
The linemen face another formidable task Friday night. Johnson labeled Temple’s front four the best in the AAC, but Houston’s is not far behind. Defensive end Steve Taylor ranks second nationally with eight sacks, and the Cougars lead the conference in that category with 18.
Tulane’s Taylor, who earned second-team all-AAC honors from Phil Steele a year ago, anticipates a different result.
“Temple was a reality shot,” he said. “It made us work harder to get ready to play the next game. We were so angry, we could have played the next day and we would have been good. We feel most of the responsibility for (Lee’s concussion).”
Powell, the next quarterback in harm’s way, professed no concern about his protection. His last substantial action came in relief against Rutgers in September 2014, but he threw a touchdown pass against Central Florida in the fourth quarter of Tulane’s most recent game at Yulman Stadium.
“I feel like a starter,” he said. “I always prepare for anything, so I can handle it. I’m just looking to be assignment sound.”
Powell won both of his starts in 2013, helping Tulane reach the New Orleans Bowl by throwing a pair of touchdown passes against East Carolina and Tulsa. He has a strong arm but has completed only 52.2 percent of his throws in his career.
“We always have faith in Devin,” linebacker Nico Marley said. “He did a great job stepping in for Nick Montana when Montana got hurt during our bowl year. I don’t think we’re taking a step back.”
Look for a different run-pass ratio than Tulane exhibited against Temple, when offensive coordinator Eric Price called 34 pass plays and 23 runs. Johnson wants to protect Powell even though Houston ranks ninth in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 95.8 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry.
“We abandoned the run too quickly (against Temple),” Johnson said. “I’ll take the boos, but we have to run the ball. If you throw, throw, throw, I don’t think the offensive line will be very good. If you run it enough, which we did versus UCF, you get that chance to achieve a mix. We can’t look at the scoreboard.”
The scoreboard operators have been busy at Houston’s games. The Cougars average 46.4 points, with dynamic quarterback Greg Ward completing 72.5 percent of his passes for 1,302 yards and eight touchdowns while rushing for a team-high 554 yards and 11 scores.
Last year, though, Ward had the worst game of his career against Tulane, throwing four interceptions as the Wave stunned the host Cougars 31-24.
That result offers a glimmer of hope despite his dramatic improvement under Tom Herman, who was the offensive coordinator for national champion Ohio State last year.
“It helps a lot,” Tulane safety Darion Monroe said. “We feel confident against this team. We’ll see what’s up.”
Tulane running back Lazedrick Thompson was ruled out of his second straight game with an ankle sprain. … Johnson said cornerback Richard Allen likely would play after missing the Temple game with an ankle injury. … The last time Tulane faced a ranked team at home, it lost 73-17 to Houston in 2011 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.