PISCATAWAY, N.J. — It’s hard to climb up a hill.
For the second straight week, Tulane’s defense put itself at the bottom of the mountain from the start.
Before the Green Wave could blink Saturday at Rutgers, it was 7-0.
A possession later it was 14-0.
Within six more minutes it was 21-0.
By the time Tulane’s defense regrouped, the climb was far too steep, eventually resulting in a 31-6 loss to Rutgers at High Point Solutions Stadium.
Green Wave players pointed at execution, rather than game plan, for the slow start, admitting they were out of position at times and that Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova made them pay for it.
“We were playing three-deep and we didn’t have three guys deep,” safety Sam Scofield said. “I wasn’t in the middle of the field and a guy snuck behind me. Another time we bit on a play-action. That’s stuff that doesn’t happen. I thought we had a good week of practice and then we came out like that.
“We just have to do our job and not worry about the rest of the defense making the tackle. If a play happens, we have to stop getting down on ourselves, and we need to keep a positive attitude. That’s important for us.”
A week after allowing consecutive long touchdown drives to start a 47-13 loss at Duke, the first quarter against Rutgers was strikingly similar.
Perhaps some of it was because of a shakeup by the Rutgers offense. Rather than relying on the power running game Tulane players spoke about most of the week, the Scarlet Knights relied on their senior quarterback, who completed his first nine passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns.
“We expected some play-action pass but we didn’t know it would be there that early, and they just kept hitting us with it,” defensive tackle Tanzel Smart said. “It’s kind of crazy because they’re a run-first team and we are playing them hard-run. So we really couldn’t do anything to get pressure in the middle, and then (Nova) was rolling outside and he was very accurate.
“I think we were kind of caught off guard. We were prepared and they just caught us with a couple of big plays early.”
Nova connected on four passes in Rutgers’ opening drive, including a three-yard touchdown on a drag route to Leonte Carroo. Then he found Carroo on passes of 46 and 25 yards to score again.
The most glaring example of Tulane’s defensive confusion came in the second quarter, on a drive that began at Rutgers’ own 1-yard line. On third-and-four, Nova faked a handoff, then found a striding Andrew Turzilli down the middle of the field for a 96-yard touchdown.
“We messed up,” Scofield said. “They scored because we didn’t do our job. We were supposed to have three guys deep and we were still getting beat deep. The coverages were put in to prevent long passes and give up intermediate passes. We just have to do our jobs better.”
Rutgers’ power-heavy sets also forced Tulane into a defensive formation it isn’t accustomed to. Typically, Tulane is able to employ a third defensive back (senior cornerback Taurean Nixon). But on Saturday it had to use a third linebacker, which forced freshmen Eric Thomas and Zachery Harris onto the field at the same time.
“It changes things for us a lot because it gets me out of position, because I have to go down there and talk to the younger guys,” junior safety Darion Monroe said. “They’ve been in the right position, but I need to make sure they know what they’re doing.”
Eventually, the Green Wave defense settled down and forced several three-and-outs to keep within striking distance.
Tulane didn’t allow a point from early in the second quarter until a field goal in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter — but without much help from an anemic offense, the early mistakes proved to be more than enough for Rutgers.
With a week off, Tulane’s defense will search for a way to regroup and avoid stumbling at the start when it hosts Connecticut on Oct. 11.
“We have a lot of things we need to fix,” Monroe said. “We are going to fix them this week.”