The sun gleamed across Yulman Stadium on a cloudless, 60-degree Saturday afternoon as fans filled up a sold-out crowd, brimming with optimism.
This was the homecoming Tulane waited 40 years to see.
It took two offensive snaps for reality to smack the Green Wave in the face.
Quarterback Tanner Lee, a week removed from a nearly flawless second half in Tulane’s upset victory at Houston, suffered through his worst outing to date as Memphis blasted the Green Wave 38-7. It started when Tigers cornerback Bobby McCain jumped in front of receiver Justyn Shackleford on an out route, outfoxing Tulane’s redshirt freshman quarterback to pick off the pass and saunter into the end zone.
The Tulane (3-7, 2-5 American) mistake, Memphis’ timely defensive play and the resulting groan from the crowd would become a theme Saturday afternoon.
It was the first of five Green Wave turnovers, including three interceptions, two of which were returned for Memphis (7-3, 5-1) touchdowns. They were just some of the lowlights for a youthful Tulane team that regressed in nearly every offensive and kicking capacity from the previous week.
Despite being outgained by just 2 yards, the once-filled stadium was nearly empty by the time Tulane stared down a 31-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter. The loss sealed the Green Wave’s 11th losing season in 12 years and extended its streak without consecutive bowl appearances to 36 years.
“It is very frustrating,” junior safety Darion Monroe said. “To have this great crowd just to us see play for homecoming, and a lot of people came from far away, to put on a performance like this in front of our family, friends and alumni is very frustrating.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers remained in control of their own destiny at the top of the American Athletic Conference, thanks in part to a suffocating defense and 178 passing yards by quarterback Paxton Lynch. Memphis won its fourth consecutive game for the first time since 2006.
But it all began on Tulane’s second play of the game.
It started a run of three Tulane turnovers in its first four possessions, including another Lee interception and a fumble by Dontrell Hilliard, just a play after Tulane recovered a fumble.
“I felt confident coming into today,” Lee said. “Maybe I was just trying to make plays that weren’t there.”
When the Green Wave finally stopped handing the ball to Memphis, the Tigers stopped Tulane from moving it, pitching a first-half shutout.
Although Tulane pushed three first-half possessions across Memphis’ 35-yard line, an array of mistakes never allowed it to cash in. Hilliard’s fumble dashed one possession, then Andrew DiRocco badly missed a 42-yard field-goal attempt, but the Tigers were still only able to extend their lead to 10-0 following Jake Elliot’s 22-yard field goal.
Right when it appeared the Green Wave would tighten the gap, driving to the Memphis 6-yard line on second down with less than a minute remaining before halftime, Lee threw a pair of incompletions before holder Peter Picereli fumbled the snap on a field-goal attempt.
It was the closest Tulane would get.
Lee admitted that Memphis’ defense, which entered the game as the No. 15 unit nationally and is loaded with eight senior starters, confused him at times and overwhelmed the Green Wave at others.
His three interceptions were more than he had thrown in his previous three games combined and left coach Curtis Johnson disappointed in the performance. But he said he never considered benching Lee for backup Nick Montana, who started two games earlier this season.
“Our quarterback didn’t play well at all today,” Johnson said. “He’s going to learn from it. I still love him. I just told him that the sun was going to come up tomorrow. It’s a learning experience for him.”
Lynch tossed a pair of third-quarter touchdowns to extend the lead around Lee’s interception. Lee, who was scrambling on the play, said he knew the moment the ball left his hand that there would be a problem. As he leapt off his back foot, the pass fell into the waiting arms of Memphis safety Dontrell Nelson, who took it 58 yards for a touchdown as the Tigers turned a competitive contest into a blowout.
While Tulane was able to finally dent the scoreboard in the final two minutes, thanks to Hilliard’s 19-yard touchdown run, the Green Wave’s chances had long since expired.
Two games remain without the hope of avoiding a losing season, but Johnson said it’s a scenario he’s excited to see. Contests against East Carolina and Temple give him the opportunity to see his team play without the weight of expectations or high stakes.
Johnson insisted that part of the rebuilding process is coming.
To the 28,614 fans who entered Yulman on Saturday, it can’t happen soon enough.
“Next year at homecoming, you watch,” Johnson said. “It’ll be something different.”