In a month shrouded by uncertainty at quarterback, Tulane has found some comfort by turning to its running game.
The Green Wave (2-4, 1-1 American) is averaging 170.3 yards per game, the third-best mark in the American Athletic Conference, turning a longtime weakness into a growing strength thanks to an effective two-back system featuring sophomore Lazedrick Thompson and redshirt freshman Sherman Badie.
“You can tell teams are a bit off-balance when they’re trying to stop the run against us and you understand why,” center Nathan Sheinle said. “We have one guy who can run past you and another that can run over you. They’ve been a lot of fun to block for this year.”
Both were on display in Tulane’s 12-3 win over Connecticut last week, helping the Green Wave average 5.1 yards per carry against a defense which allowed less than 3.0 yards per carry in its previous four games. Regardless of whether Tanner Lee or Nick Montana start at quarterback against Central Florida (3-2, 1-0) at 11 a.m. on Saturday, much of Tulane’s offensive success will come down to whether it can repeat the same type of performance on the ground.
“I believe it’s really starting to come together for our running game,” Badie said. “We are getting more comfortable and confident in our offensive line and they are starting know what we can do as well. It’s only going to get better.”
The elusive and explosive Badie is the headline-grabber. The former John Curtis standout has three runs of longer than 70 yards this season, and his 534 yards puts him on pace to break the school’s freshman rushing record (925, set by Orleans Darkwa in 2010).
Badie ranks second in The American in rushing, thanks largely to his long bursts, despite sharing carries in an offense that averages just 19.7 points per game (No. 111 nationally).
“Sherman is a speed guy as you can see,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “One thing he’s beginning to do is he’s learning to speed through the hole, he can hit it and he can go the distance. When he comes into games, teams have a lot of stuff to worry about.
“He’s got good vision with cutback ability. You’ve got to be very leery about what you do when Sherman is in the game. If you come after him like Southeastern did, we threw the ball to him and he scored a touchdown that way.”
Badie’s playmaking is complemented well by the Thompson’s bruising style. The 6-foot-1, 217-pounder emerged from a crowded backfield to become the Wave’s most reliable option in short yardage situations.
Unlike Badie, who has often been tackled for a loss, Thompson has a small handful of negative carries (losing just nine combined yards) in 65 attempts. His 4.6 yards per carry haven’t come from average-boosting long sprints down the sideline, either.
Thompson illustrated his value during the fourth quarter of Tulane’s win over Connecticut, when he broke nearly 10 tackles in two carries, taking the Green Wave from its own 3-yard line to the Huskies 40, flipping field position and chewing valuable minutes off the clock.
“Lazedrick, I’m telling you, is a powerful, powerful young man,” Johnson said. “He’s big. He’s not going to run around you. Big guys are going to run over you. He’s shown he can catch it some and he can protect. You’ve got two different kinds of animals — a guy that can take it the distance every play and a guy that is just a battering ram.”
Yet, Tulane’s running game still isn’t entirely reliable. The offense is routinely penalized, eliminating favorable down-and-distance scenarios, which have minimized the running game’s effectiveness.
On Saturday, six offensive penalties short-circuited five different drives. Tulane failed to overcome a single holding or false-start to gain a first down, despite rushing for 167 yards.
“I think we’ve gotten a bit of a reputation for it with the officials, unfortunately,” Shienle said. “It’s up to us to clean it up. We haven’t been perfect, but once you become a team that’s getting penalized a lot, referees expect to penalize you.
“I think it’s really hurt our offense as much as anything and especially our running game. Our running game could really be dangerous if we kept ourselves out of third-and-long and kept going at it without a penalty.”