In a game that defied convention almost all the way, Tulane saved the most unlikely turnaround for the final possession.
A maligned offense that had gone next to nowhere in the first nine games came up huge at the end against Army. After blowing a 21-point lead, the Green Wave blew right down the field, and Andrew DiRocco drilled a 35-yard field goal as time ran out to beat the Black Knights 34-31 on Saturday at Michie Stadium in West Point, New York.
Tulane (3-7) snapped a five-game losing streak and made life a whole lot easier for everyone associated with the program for at least a week. Army (2-8) lost its third in a row.
“Our offense finally woke up,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “Our defense has been saving us all year, but that last drive was outstanding.”
Quarterback Tanner Lee and company took over at their 23-yard line with 1:53 left following Army’s 16-play, 87-yard touchdown drive that tied the score. The Black Knights faked the extra point and made a 2-point conversion, but it was nullified by offsetting penalties that forced them to settle for an extra point.
Lee, wild and off-target for most of the day while continuing to play through an injured finger on his throwing hand, completed 3 of 4 passes on the drive, including a critical third-down throw to receiver Devon Breaux. Dontrell Hilliard carried four times for 24 yards to move the ball to the Army 18 with 4 seconds left.
DiRocco then sent the game-winner right down the middle, sparking a huge celebration.
“Sometimes we need a little help from the offense,” said defensive tackle Tanzel Smart, who was credited with nine tackles in another dominant performance. “They sure did provide that for us today.”
Lee finished 14 of 29 for 252 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Hilliard rushed 14 times for 91 yards.
Army rushed for 216 yards but needed 55 attempts to do it, averaging 3.9 yards per carry while Tulane made 10 tackles for loss.
In a sense, the ending was fitting since little that happened before it fit the pattern of either team’s season.
Army scored three touchdowns on its opening possession. Only one counted: A 72-yard run was shortened to a 37-yard gain by a penalty and another flag turned a 36-yard scoring reception by quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw on a fourth-down trick play into a 15-yard gain.
Bradshaw finally scored anyway, running in from 3 yards, and the comedy of errors continued from Tulane.
Kickoff returner Josh Rounds let a ball bounce by him, picked it up and got clobbered at the Tulane 10 by teammate Rae Juan Marbley, who was trying to block. An errant snap on the Wave’s first play forced a 6-yard loss, leading to a three-and-out.
After foiling a fake field goal from the 10, Tulane was penalized for a false start before Lee underthrew horribly on what would have been a 95-yard touchdown pass to wideout Teddy Veal when his defender fell down.
At that point, Tulane looked lifeless.
One play later, Lee hooked up with Veal for 90 yards on a post pattern, hitting him in stride for the second-longest passing scoring toss in Tulane history.
Just like that, everything started falling in the Wave’s favor.
Lee threw a 15-yard pass to tight end Kendall Ardoin for the go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter as Tulane, ranked 116th nationally in third-down conversions, converted five in a row during one stretch.
Cornerback Parry Nickerson returned a fumble 48 yards for a score after teammate Sean Wilson tried to fall on it and sent it squirting right to him.
Rounds scored on a 25-yard run for Tulane’s third touchdown in as many possessions, giving the Wave a 28-7 lead with 3:35 left in the half.
If that was improbable, so was Army’s immediate answer. After fumbling and stumbling around for three straight series, the Black Knights went 72 yards in four plays, scoring on a 19-yard touchdown pass.
Then, when Tulane’s next drive stalled, Army blocked a punt and returned it 21 yards for another touchdown.
The Black Knights, who threw one pass against Penn State earlier this year, had four players attempt passes in the first half, including its punter after a Tulane-like wild snap.
The second half settled into more of what was expected from two struggling teams that each scored three points last week while failing to pick up 10 first downs.
But when Army finally found its offense, Tulane responded.
“It gives us big-time confidence,” Johnson said. “Now we can go 3-0 at the end and finish this off.”