Tulane football coach Willie Fritz rattled off a frightening list of reasons for why South Florida was the Green Wave’s highest-ranked opponent in the four-year history of Yulman Stadium.
Preseason Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback? Check. Powerful running game? Check.
Big offensive line? Talented receivers? Big defensive front? Good cover guys? Excellent kicking game? Check, check, check, check, check.
After outscoring teams a year ago with a breakneck-paced offense under former coach Willie Taggart, the Bulls (6-0, 3-0 American Athletic Conference) are beating them in every facet of the game with new coach Charlie Strong. To pull an upset, the Wave (3-3, 1-1), a 11½-point underdog, will have to do much more than slow down dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers.
“It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us,” Fritz said. “We need to have a great week of preparation and play lights out Saturday night.”
So what exactly is Tulane facing?
Some of South Florida’s numbers are scary, with the caveat that they have come against an incredibly weak schedule. The Bulls, ranked 16th in the Associated Press poll and 13th by the coaches, have extended their streak of scoring at least 30 points to 23 games, tying Oregon’s NCAA record set in 2011 and 2012. They rank third nationally in rushing defense, holding opponents to 77.8 yards per game, second nationally in pass efficiency defense (with an NCAA-best 15 interceptions) and 12th in total defense.
“They are freakishly fast and athletic,” Tulane offensive coordinator Doug Ruse said. “The thing that's amazing about these guys, they were one of the lowest-rated defenses in the country a year ago.”
South Florida finished 120th defensively in 2016, but with nine returning starters and Strong’s background as a defensive coach, the dramatic transformation is not totally surprising.
The Bulls also are first nationally in turnover margin at plus-13, causing 18 while giving up only five.
Even the kicking game is special. Emilio Nadelman has connected on a school-record 13 consecutive field goals and has made 21 of his past 22.
“We’re 6-0, so we’ve done a good job, but you always look to improve and get better,” Strong said. “It’s week by week, and you always have to be prepared to play. It’s all about your daily improvement.”
Despite their dominant overall numbers, the Bulls have been far from perfect.
Perhaps because of their non-threatening schedule, they have started slowly in almost every game, outscoring opponents 43-38 in the first quarter and 214-65 the rest of the way. AAC victims Temple, East Carolina and Cincinnati are a combined 6-15. Non-conference conquests San Jose State and Illinois are a combined 3-10, and the Bulls' only victim with a winning record is FCS member Stony Brook.
As has often been the case, Strong was not happy with last Saturday’s 33-3 victory against Cincinnati, which limited South Florida to three field goals until late in the first half.
“We just didn’t get any explosive plays on offense,” he said. “It’s all about your focus and being prepared to play, getting off to a good start and playing with some emotion and passion.”
Flowers’ statistics pale in comparison to what he accomplished a year ago. His completion rate is a modest 53.4 percent, down from 62.5. He is averaging 79 yards rushing, down from 118, with his average per attempt dropping to 4.7 from 7.7.
But when the Bulls have really needed him, Flowers has raised his game. With South Florida trailing San Jose State 16-0 in its opener, he threw a pair of touchdown passes during a 28-0 second-quarter explosion. When they fell behind Stony Brook 10-7 at the half the following week, he threw go-ahead passes in the third and fourth quarters of a 31-17 victory.
“He's quick, fast and elusive,” Fritz said. “We have to do a good job of keeping him in the pocket and making him step up in the pocket, because if he sees an inch of daylight he'll take off to the outside, and then he does a good job of keeping his eyes downfield while he's scrambling.”
Tulane redshirt senior defensive end Eldrick Washington tore a ligament in his right knee and will miss the rest of the year, Fritz said. Washington, who started all six games this season and had six tackles, ends his career with 38 tackles.
True freshman Cameron Sample, whose 17 tackles tie him with Sean Wilson for the most by a Tulane lineman, will replace Washington as a starter.