HOUSTON — Maybe this is what maturity looks like.
For a team that gained 292 of its 361 yards Saturday from true freshmen or redshirt freshmen, maturity isn’t a quality expected of this Tulane team.
But in hanging on for a 31-24 victory over Houston at TDECU Stadium, that’s exactly the attribute coach Curtis Johnson said impressed him most.
“They’re learning and they’re not giving up,” Johnson said. “That’s the thing I’m most proud of this team is they are not giving up. You don’t see guys whining. They come out to practice, and they play as hard as they possibly can. Sometime we get out-athleted, but for the most part these kids are with us and they’re playing, and we are moving in the right direction.”
In completing Saturday’s upset, the Green Wave shrugged off so many of the mistakes that crippled the team during its 2-6 start.
An onside kick surrendered in the final minute? One hundred thirty-two yards allowed in the game’s final three minutes?
Tulane wasn’t perfect, but it also wasn’t shellshocked. Never was that clearer than when redshirt freshman cornerback Parry Nickerson slid in the end zone to intercept Greg Ward Jr.’s pass as time expired.
“You just have to have amnesia sometimes,” Nickerson said. “You just have to keep your head in the game and keep playing no matter the circumstances. I just came up with a big play.”
And that mentality started in the locker room at halftime.
Tulane seemingly fell apart in the final two minutes of the opening half, turning a 14-7 lead into a 17-14 halftime deficit thanks to two turnovers and sloppy play. For the second consecutive week, freshman receiver Teddy Veal coughed up the football inside Tulane’s own 10-yard line, resulting in an opponent’s touchdown.
Then Lee, who hadn’t thrown an interception since Sept. 20, was picked off in the final minute, allowing Houston to drive into field-goal range to take a lead. As a three-touchdown underdog, not much was expected when Tulane returned to the field for the second half.
Instead, it delivered punch after punch to overcome the deficit and then take a commanding lead.
“I thought we did a really good job of collecting everybody together and we knew we were going to be alright,” senior safety Sam Scofield said. “We needed the offense to make some plays and they did. I thought we responded really well after that.”
It also responded better when a defensive leader was ejected in the first half. Junior safety Darion Monroe, who made his 33rd consecutive start Saturday, was flagged for targeting midway through the second quarter and sent to the locker room.
In Tulane’s 38-14 loss to Cincinnati last week, several defensive players admitted that defensive end Tyler Gilbert’s ejection took the wind out of their sideline and changed the tenor of the game. This time, Tulane’s leaders made certain that wouldn’t take them down again.
Safeties Brandon LeBeau and Leonard Davis filled in for the missing Monroe and never let Houston get behind them for a backbreaking score.
The Cougars’ longest gain was a 28 yards.
“We are deep,” cornerback Lorenzo Doss said. “We go out there and play for each other. That’s the biggest part. When (Monroe) got thrown out, I was going to go out there and play for my brother.”
Johnson acknowledged that team relying on so many freshmen and redshirt freshman, it may have taken two months just to learn what resilience and maturity truly mean. He said he can see his team growing up in front of him, even if the process is going a bit slower than he would’ve liked.
“I would hope not, but it seems like it does,” Johnson said. “These young kids are learning more and more each day. It’s in the making. I think these kids are going to be really good players for us.”