After shutting out Connecticut but having nothing to show for it, the Tulane defense needs to make sure it does not shut down emotionally against Army.
The Green Wave (2-7) and Black Knights (2-7) will try to salvage something from yet another disappointing season when they meet Saturday at Michie Stadium in West Point, New York. Defeats last week guaranteed the 12th losing record in 13 years for Tulane and the 18th in the past 19 years for Army.
Somehow, the Tulane defense did not become unhinged in the 7-3 loss to UConn last Saturday. The Huskies scored their only points on an interception return, the latest lowlight in a frustrating season in which the Wave offense has put up 14 or fewer points in each of the past five games.
“One thing we’re not going to do is fold,” senior safety Darion Monroe said. “We’ll never do that. We are going to keep playing hard, and we’re going to keep playing to the whistle and sometimes after the whistle. We’re going to keep doing what we do best. We’re not going to give up on the season — seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen, nobody.”
Despite Tulane’s record, Monroe and his mates are on an impressive run recently. They limited UConn to a season-low 230 yards, held Memphis to one touchdown before wearing down late and stuffed Navy’s triple-option attack.
The 22nd-ranked Midshipmen managed 133 rushing yards against the Wave, almost 200 less than their season average of 326.5 and below their 300-plus-yard output against No. 6 Notre Dame and No. 21 Memphis.
Army runs the same offense, averaging 257.4 yards on the ground against a less difficult schedule than Navy’s.
“We just have to play assignment football,” Tulane end Royce LaFrance said. “If we do the same thing against Army we did against Navy, I don’t see any difference in what will happen.”
Tulane will play without middle linebacker Eric Thomas (foot injury), who made a team-high eight tackles against Navy. Sophomore Rae Juan Marbley will replace him, but the rest of the lineup remains intact.
The Wave figures to use the same five-man front it employed against Navy, with LaFrance and Ade Aruna flanking tackles Tanzel Smart, Sean Wilson and Corey Redwine. Their penetration forced Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds to pitch on the option more than normal, allowing Monroe and defensive backs Jarrod Franklin and Parry Nickerson to fly to the ball on the perimeter.
Smart has been dominant lately, registering five tackles for loss against Memphis and UConn to move into a tie with LaFrance for the team lead with 11.
“He’s playing at an unbelievable pace right now,” co-defensive coordinator Jason Rollins said. “We works so hard. This is his third year, so he knows what to expect.”
Just a slight dropoff in intensity, though, could prove costly. Army, which uses more formations than Navy, rushed for 378 yards in a 38-31 loss to Rice on Oct. 24 and gained 261 yards on the ground against Penn State three weeks earlier.
If the Tulane offense continues to struggle, the defense cannot afford to relax at all.
“We always tell them that you can only take care of what you can take care of,” Rollins said. “So control what you can control, and we don’t care about what happens on the other side.”
Head coach Curtis Johnson is counting on his seniors to set the example.
“They have been playing together for a long time,” he said. “Monroe is the consummate professional, and so are Royce LaFrance and Corey Redwine. Those are our only three seniors on defense, and they want to make a good showing. They are going to continue to play hard, just like they have been playing for their whole careers.”
The next step is being rewarded for their effort. Quarterback Tanner Lee, coming off statistically the worst game of his career, feels for the defense.
“Those guys put in so much work, and for us to not execute and not play well, it’s tough,” he said. “We need to play better. If we can finish out the season on a high note with three wins, we’ll feel better about the season altogether. We’re playing for our teammates and our school and our family now.”
They also may be playing for their coaches’ future. Four years ago, a dismal 45-6 loss to Army essentially sealed former coach Bob Toledo’s fate, and he was forced to resign two weeks later.
If the Wave mails this one in, there’s no telling what the destination will be for Johnson and his staff in 2016.
After a brutally tough October stretch against four teams that are ranked in the Top 25, Tulane is 0-1 against its manageable November schedule, with three more chances to turn it around versus Army, SMU (1-8) and Tulsa (5-5).
“We have to finish strong, so I can at least sleep a little bit,” Johnson said. “We have to go up to West Point, and we have to win this weekend. Then we will talk about SMU and Tulsa after that.”
The Army game will be televised nationally by CBS Sports Network a week before the Wave faces SMU on ESPNews in prime time. Those three teams have a combined win total of five. ... The series between Tulane and Army is tied at 9-9-1.