This was the kind of night Tulane spent $80 million for.
Under the lights of still-sparkling, brand new Yulman Stadium, the Green Wave showed off a highlight-driven offense en route to a 35-20 victory over Southeastern Louisiana to win its first game on campus since 1974.
The 26,358 in attendance saw quarterback Tanner Lee repeatedly show off his arm while the defense largely contained one of the most explosive offenses in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Tulane (1-2) pounced on the Lions (2-1) early, swallowing up the read-option and allowing Lee time to complete pinpoint passes all over the field in the first half, despite facing an array of heavy blitzes. The freshman finished with 238 yards and three touchdowns, despite completing just 14 of 30 attempts and tossing two interceptions.
“I thought he was excellent,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “He just has ice water in his veins.”
After being held scoreless in the second half of last week’s 38-21 loss to Georgia Tech, Tulane’s offense immediately shook off any signs of rust, scoring three touchdowns before the midway point of the second quarter. While Southeastern aided the Green Wave with more than 100 yards in penalties during the first half alone, Tulane’s ability to convert third downs and gain yards in chunks kept the pressure on a Lions defense used to bullying its opponents from ahead.
The message from Johnson to look beyond Southeastern’s FCS status and see a talented team capable of winning a championship appeared to resonate with his team. Tulane was anything but flat to start the game.
Instead, the Wave jumped on top midway through the first quarter when Lee converted a pair of third-and-longs, setting up Sherman Badie’s 11-yard touchdown run. Then the Green Wave opened the second quarter deep in Lions territory thanks to a pair of personal fouls, leading to Lee’s 15-yard fade pass that connected with a striding Justyn Shackleford in the corner of the end zone.
Unlike the previous two weeks, Tulane didn’t ease off the gas.
Instead, Badie burst through the line for a 30-yard gain to put Tulane in striking distance. SLU boosted the field position by committing another personal foul and later a pass interference, setting up Lazedrick Thompson’s 1-yard plunge to push the lead to 21-0.
“We were our own worst enemy,” Southeastern coach Ron Roberts said. “There were a lot of self-inflicted wounds in the first 30 minutes of that ballgame.”
After the Lions finally cracked the scoreboard on a Ryan Adams 43-yard field goal, Tulane never allowed the Lions’ momentum to bubble into anything significant.
Despite forcing a Badie fumble at the Tulane 29-yard line, SLU garnered no points, gaining just 3 yards and missing a field goal. Then the Green Wave pushed all the way down on the accelerator, driving 74 yards in 10 plays to squeeze out the final two-plus minutes of the first half before Lee found Badie in the flat for a 3-yard touchdown.
Tulane’s defense harassed typically proficient Bryan Bennett. Southeastern’s quarterback and Walter Payton Award hopeful couldn’t find much room to operate, whether keeping the zone-read for himself or stepping back to pass.
After throwing for 535 yards in his first two games, Bennett managed just 48 yards on 10 attempts in the opening half and wasn’t among the Lions’ top four rushers. By the time he got rolling late in the third quarter, spearheading an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, SLU was fighting the clock as much as it was the Green Wave. Bennett finished 16-of-34 for 213 yards.
When it appeared the Lions were inching themselves back into puncher’s distance after Adams’ 50-yard field goal cut the lead to 28-13 early in the fourth quarter, Tulane pushed itself out again. Within a minute, Lee found Xavier Rush in the middle of the field, and the senior receiver ducked and danced his way around six Lions en route to a 74-yard touchdown.
“They started to stack the line,” Johnson said. “That’s when we got those big plays.”
Bennett, who averaged 300 yards during the Lions’ run to the FCS quarterfinals last year, was held to just 124 by the Green Wave until the final two minutes when the game was out of doubt. Tulane largely kept Bennett in the pocket and limited his ability to get down the field. Three sacks helped to contribute to his minus-10 rushing yards, but even on designed runs he averaged just more than 2 yards per carry.
Tulane will have to leave its friendly home confines to travel to undefeated Duke on Saturday. The Lions hope to get back on its path toward the FCS playoffs at Southeast Missouri.
“It feels good to win one,” Johnson said. “It was nice to dance in the locker room.”