The statistics say Tulane should throw early and often on Memphis’ porous secondary to have any chance of keeping up with the prolific Tigers offense.
The reality likely will be quite different. With former walk-on quarterback Jordy Joseph set to start for the first time, the Green Wave, a bigger underdog than in any other game in coach Curtis Johnson’s four-year tenure, figures to run as much as possible in hopes of shortening Saturday night’s game at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
Ground and pound and hope to hang around?
“We can’t turn it over, and the one thing we have to do offensively is be able to run it,” Johnson said. “If we can run it, we’ll have a chance.”
Memphis (7-0) is dead last nationally against the pass, allowing 342.1 yards per game, but all of those big gains in the air have not helped opponents beat the No. 16 Tigers. South Florida, the only team to finish within one score, ran on 10 of 12 plays during an opening 95-yard touchdown drive. The next time the Bulls had the ball, they rushed eight times on 10 snaps before making a short field goal to go ahead 10-0.
By then, the second quarter had started. Although Memphis rallied to win 24-17, South Florida limited it to its fewest plays (72) and yards (425) this season while holding the Tigers to less than half of their scoring average (48.9 points). It was a sharp contrast to the ridiculous numbers the Tigers have rung up the past two weeks against Ole Miss (94 plays, 491 yards) and Tulsa (96, 704).
Leaving the defense on the field that much would be a nightmare scenario on Halloween for Tulane.
The key is to have the same success on the ground as South Florida.
Memphis, which replaced eight defensive starters from 2014, has gotten stronger as the year goes along. Since the scare against the Bulls, Memphis held Ole Miss to 40 yards on 24 carries and limited Tulsa’s leading rusher to 42 yards on 11 attempts.
Tulane has struggled to run consistently, averaging less than 3 yards per carry in its first four losses (102 attempts, 303 yards), even factoring out sacks. But the Wave fared better against Navy last Saturday, with the running backs combining for 131 yards on 24 attempts.
“The Navy game was a big confidence booster for us,” said sophomore Dontrell Hilliard, who has a team-best 292 yards on 53 carries (5.5-yard average) for the year. “We were down that we lost, but we’re looking at the good things we did. I think our running game will be pretty good.”
With power back Lazedrick Thompson (sprained ankle) expected to miss his fourth consecutive game, Tulane will continue to rotate Hilliard and fellow running backs Sherman Badie, Josh Rounds and Rob Kelley with specific packages. Rounds rushed 14 times against Central Florida, but no one else has carried the ball more than 11 times in a game, with Badie topping out at seven against Houston and Navy.
After rushing for 589 yards on 88 carries in his first seven games as a redshirt freshman, Badie has 179 yards on 36 attempts at the same stage this year.
Earlier this week, Johnson labeled Badie an outside runner and said opponents have covered him well, forcing Tulane to rely more on Kelly and Rounds, whom he considers straight-ahead backs like Thompson.
Hilliard, the only back he considers multipurpose, may have an increased workload to take the pressure off Joseph.
“If our defense can get us some stops, Jordy can execute the offense,” Johnson said. “We’re doing things a little bit different than we would have done if it were any other quarterback.”
The rest is up to the defense, which has registered 15 sacks in the past four games but faces its toughest challenge against Memphis.
Tigers quarterback Paxton Lynch, a mobile, 6-foot-7, 235-pounder, has been sacked only nine times while throwing 243 passes.
“They have a good offensive line and an NFL-caliber quarterback, so we really have to peel our ears back and get after it this week,” said defensive tackle Tanzel Smart, whose 27 stops lead Tulane’s defensive linemen. “Since they get rid of the ball quick, we need to get our hands up, too.”
Memphis coach Justin Fuente joined the burgeoning admiration society for Tulane’s front seven, echoing the words of Houston’s Tom Herman and Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, who both said it was the best their teams had faced this season.
“They are a tremendous unit,” Fuente said. “They are big and physical and well-coached. They understand their scheme. People sometimes underestimate (linebacker Nico) Marley because he’s not real big, but he is a heck of a player combined with those big defensive linemen penetrating and getting in the backfield.”
If the Wave’s best hope is Memphis looking ahead to its tough November schedule, Fuente did not sound a note of encouragement. The Tigers’ first three games next month are Navy at home and Houston and Temple on the road, the three teams that handed Tulane its past three losses.
Their combined record is 19-1, but Fuente’s focus is on the present.
Even though Memphis won 38-7 at Yulman Stadium last season, he noted that Tulane held the Tigers to 334 yards, their third-lowest total.
“Quite honestly, their defense really took it to our offense, particularly in the front,” he said. “We have a tremendous amount of respect for them. We’ll have our hands full this week.”
Freshman Taris Shenall will start in place of Richard Allen (concussion) at cornerback for Tulane. Shenall, who also started against Houston, has seven tackles and one interception. ... Memphis has won eight straight in the series, with all but one win coming by at least 14 points.