Three days after losing to Navy 31-14, Tulane players and coaches still were shaking their heads about letting one get away.
Blown out in its first four losses, the Green Wave dominated the Midshipmen up front defensively, blocked well enough to pick up 21 first downs and still had next to nothing to show for that performance.
“To me there are no moral victories — you either win or lose — and that was a game I thought we could have won and I thought we should have won,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “(Navy) may be a little better on a different day, but we should have won that game.”
The only solace the Wave took from its third consecutive loss was in the vast improvement of the defense, which gave up 439 rushing yards in a humiliating 65-10 defeat at option-based Georgia Tech earlier this year but limited Navy to 133 yards with 2.5 yards per carry. Using a five-man line to take away the Midshipmen’s dive play, Tulane (2-5, 1-3 American Athletic Conference) disrupted the Midshipmen’s option like no team had in the past two years.
“Oh man, if there was no scoreboard it would be perfect,” said linebacker Nico Marley, who had two tackles for loss and a sack. “I’m saying that as far as watching our defense play so gap sound and so disciplined. Everything was flowing smoothly.”
The trick will be translating that performance into this Saturday’s trip to 16th-ranked Memphis (7-0, 3-0), whose prolific offense bears no resemblance to Navy’s. With quarterback Paxton Lynch averaging 338 passing yards while throwing for 17 touchdowns, the Tigers rank third nationally in scoring at 48.9 points per game.
Memphis hung 66 points on Tulsa on Friday, scored 53 on Cincinnati and has won 14 consecutive games dating to last season.
“Navy ran, ran and ran, and Memphis has the best quarterback in the nation,” Marley said. “We definitely are seeing two sides of the spectrum.”
Still, the Wave may have turned the corner against Navy. Gone were the silly personal foul penalties that plagued the defense against Houston a week earlier and the mental mistakes that prolonged drives in the first half of the season as Tulane ranked near the bottom of the nation in yards allowed.
The scheme will change against Memphis as Tulane goes back to its normal look with four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs, but the commitment will remain the same.
“It just let us know that we actually are a good, fundamentally sound, disciplined defense,” said co-defensive coordinator Jason Rollins, who designed the plan that controlled Navy. “In order to play against them, you have to have great eye discipline, great team discipline and great mental discipline. Our takeaway is we can play four quarters of disciplined football and play hard.”
They will need that and maybe a little more to combat Lynch, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound redshirt junior who has thrown for more than 300 yards in six straight games while tossing only one interception in 243 attempts.
The Tigers beat Tulane 38-7 at Yulman Stadium a year ago and have improved exponentially on offense since then. Lynch was a mediocre 14 of 25 for 178 yards on that day, and Memphis needed two interception returns for touchdowns to pull away.
“We watched the film from last year and (Lynch) made some errant throws, but if you watch the film from this year he’s spot on,” safety Darion Monroe said. “He’s a great quarterback, and you can’t really key on their pass game because they are going to run the ball on you, too.”
Running back Doroland Dorceus, a New Orleans native who played high school football in Texas, leads Memphis with 335 yards in a balanced approach that averages 199.3 rushing yards.
“You can’t let them have anything they want,” Marley said. “We have to stop the run and make them one-dimensional and make their best player win the game for them.”
Quarterback Tanner Lee was limited in practice Tuesday, and sources told The Advocate he injured fingers on his throwing hand against Navy and is questionable for the Memphis game. … Johnson would not specify the injury, although he said it was unrelated to the concussion that forced Lee to sit out against Houston. … Three players are questionable while undergoing Tulane’s concussion protocol — starting cornerback Richard Allen, fullback Rob Kelley and starting offensive tackle Arturo Uzdavinis.