With nothing tangible to play for in its final two games, the Tulane football team will work on the intangibles after Saturday’s disappointing 38-7 homecoming loss to Memphis.
The Green Wave (3-7, 2-4 American Athletic) is guaranteed to finish below .500 for the second time in coach Curtis Johnson’s three-year tenure and the 11th time in 12 seasons. Still, a trip to East Carolina (6-3, 3-2) on Saturday and the home finale against Temple (5-5, 3-3) will provide valuable experience for a young team that has 11 underclassmen on its first unit and only five senior starters.
Johnson said he loves the end-of-year stretch that started with a home game against AAC contender Cincinnati, continued with a win at then-AAC co-leader Houston and moved on to first-place Memphis. He just wants to avoid the five turnovers that killed any chance of being competitive with the Tigers.
“This is the best scenario for us,” he said. “We want to play tough teams now, because we know now that we are playing the best of the best. We have not talked about bowl games all year. We have just talked about improving. This team knows we have the skills to hang with any team out there. Five turnovers equals 35 points for them, and if we can eliminate that, we can play with all of those teams.”
Johnson even pointed out some positives in the lopsided loss to Memphis. The defense played well for the first three quarters — Tulane actually outgained the Tigers 351-334 for the game — and he did not see any splintering as the passing game imploded.
Tulane trailed 31-0 entering the fourth quarter thanks to two interception returns for touchdowns.
“We really took a step back and tried to remind everyone that we are building a team for the future,” Johnson said. “I talked with our coaches and everyone on the phone and told them to keep positive body language going. I thought we did a good job of that. I have seen games like this end in chaos, and that did not happen tonight. We continued to grow throughout this game, and that is what I talked about to the team in the locker room.”
Tulane’s lack of experience is undeniable, but junior safety Darion Monroe was tired of using it as an excuse.
“We’re 10 games into the season now, so the young thing has to go out the window at some point,” he said. “We have to step up and commit to play our game.”
Johnson singled out one play as the most frustrating of the night, and it was not Lee’s interceptions or the two fumbles by freshman running back Dontrell Hilliard. It was the high snap from Mike Lizanich that went through holder Peter Picerelli’s hands at the end of the first half, preventing Tulane from converting a 23-yard field goal that would have trimmed its deficit to 10-3.
“I know we are better than that,” Johnson said. “That was a little bit of a mishap. If we had ended the half down 10-3, that would have been a lot better of a situation for us.”
Freshman Andrew DiRocco also missed a 42-yard field goal.
Sophomore Lazedrick Thompson led Tulane with 70 yards on 12 carries, and Johnson said he would have gotten the ball more if he had been 100 percent healthy.
Thompson, who played one down against Houston a week earlier after spraining an ankle against Cincinnati, tweaked the ankle again.
“I thought about continuing to pound the ball with Lazedrick, but the game was getting out of hand,” Johnson said. “He was running the ball very well, but when he went out, I didn’t know how much more I wanted to do with him because I didn’t want to hurt him anymore.”
Thompson, Sherman Badie and Hilliard combined for 171 yards on 37 carries.
Tulane cornerback Parry Nickerson received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after Memphis scored its final touchdown with 1:03 left, but Johnson defended him after having a long discussion with him on the sideline.
The gist: Nickerson retaliated for something unmentionable that a Memphis player did to him.
“I know what happened, and I don’t want to say it because I don’t want to make a controversy,” Johnson said. “The official said he didn’t see it, but he came and said he knew the (Memphis player) did something.”