MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A driving rainstorm stopped just before kickoff of the Tulane-Memphis game Friday night.
The Green Wave fell victim to a different kind of storm after the precipitation ended.
After playing maybe the worst opening 20 minutes in program history, Tulane could not dig itself out of an impossibly deep hole, losing 56-26 to No. 24 Memphis at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
The high-octane Tigers (7-1, 4-1 American Athletic Conference) took control of the AAC West Division and appear to be on a collision course with the winner of the regular-season finale between undefeated East co-leaders South Florida and Central Florida for a league championship game that will determine a spot in a major bowl.
Tulane (3-5, 1-3), which lost its third in a row, followed its slow start against South Florida last Saturday with a start that was even colder than the 42-degree temperature at kickoff.
After Memphis turned over the ball on downs on its opening possession, the Tigers scored touchdowns on five of six drives while limiting the Green Wave to one first down on its first six series.
By that point, Memphis led 35-0 with 11:20 left in the second quarter and had outgained Tulane 418-20.
“We played awful defensively,” coach Willie Fritz said. “We just really did a poor job of tackling. You've got to get up and put your arms around them and take them frickin’ down. There were way too many big plays. We lost contain on easy plays. We repped those plays, but it was a team loss. We didn’t coach very well and we didn’t execute very well.”
Fritz did not spare the offense.
“We missed blocks; the backs weren’t firm at all a couple of times in protections; and we didn’t get the ball out in time or run the right route,” he said. “There were a lot of things involved. It was not one guy or one person. It’s a lot of guys. I wish it was just one. We could fix that.”
It was all but over early in the second quarter — except, somehow, briefly, it wasn’t.
Rebounding from an awful start, quarterback Jonathan Banks led back-to-back touchdown drives at the end of the first half and another one in the third quarter as Tulane closed to within 16 points, 35-19.
The Wave got the ball back on a three-and-out, and with visions of tying the largest comeback in NCAA history (Michigan State rallied from a 38-3 deficit to Northwestern in 2006), Banks missed wide open receiver Darnell Mooney on what would have been an 88-yard touchdown on the next play.
“No doubt if I could have connected with Darnell on that one, we would have been down a little more than seven points,” Banks said. “I’ve just got to go to practice and get better.”
Memphis sealed the win two plays later when a shotgun snap from backup center Hunter Knighton — starting for the injured Junior Diaz — hit the knee of tight end Kendall Ardoin in motion. The Tigers recovered the loose ball in the end zone.
They were in the end zone all the time in the first half, scoring on plays that covered 58, 16, 38, 82 and 37 yards, while doing whatever they wanted in the air and on the ground. Running back Tony Pollard started the onslaught with a 58-yard touchdown on a reverse, breaking an arm tackle along the way as he streaked down the sideline.
It got worse for the Wave. No one covered wide receiver Sean Dykes on a 38-yard touchdown reception in a secondary miscommunication that resembled what happened against Oklahoma, the last passing team Tulane faced.
On the next defensive snap for the Wave, Henderson busted up the middle for an 82-yard score, the longest run Tulane had allowed since 2010 against Rutgers.
Memphis had to work harder for its fifth touchdown, requiring a warmup-play before Kedarian Jones beat safety P.J. Hall for a 37-yard score.
The Tigers hit the Wave from all angles, with different players accounting for the five touchdowns and six players gaining at least 15 yards on a play. Quarterback Riley Ferguson, who already had three 400-yard passing games and two games with six or more scoring tosses, threw for 238 yards and three scores before the 10-minute mark of the second quarter.
He did not always need to be brilliant, but he was picture-perfect on a sideline toss to wide receiver Anthony Miller, allowing him to leap over Hall to bring it in.
While all that was going on, the Tulane offense could not get out of reverse against a team that had allowed 488 yards per game.
Banks, who practiced sparingly during the week to protect a finger he dislocated against South Florida last Saturday, was sacked three times before he threw his first completion in the second quarter.
Backup Johnathan Brantley relieved him for the third series and promptly tried to reverse field on an option to the left, running backward with no blocking help before being brought down for an 8-yard loss.
With Diaz not playing because of an unspecified injury, Tulane found little daylight on its staple inside zone run, either. Dontrell Hilliard managed 40 yards on 12 carries in the first half and was stuffed on a third-down run to end Tulane’s first series, setting the tone.
The Wave thought it had its first completion on a desperate bit of improvisation by Banks as he was being tackled, but replays showed both of his knees were down before he released the ball.
The special teams joined the act, too, even though Tulane squibbed its kickoffs to avoid dealing with Pollard, who had returned three for scores this year. Zach Block’s first punt traveled 24 yards, and another one was blocked and went only 20 yards, both setting up Memphis touchdowns.
Banks finished 15 of 30 for 203 yards and three touchdowns, but they all came after the 35-0 deficit.
Memphis settled for 557 yards after its phenomenal start.
Tulane is stuck near the bottom of the AAC West — again — a half-game ahead of Tulsa. The Wave’s 62-28 trouncing of the Golden Hurrricane feels like it came longer than three weeks ago.
“We’ve seen this a lot in the previous games where we let a team score a lot of points on us early and then got going too late,” said safety Jarrod Franklin, whose interception late in the first half served as a brief catalyst. “It all goes back to starting strong and having a game plan in the first quarter to stop their offense and minimize their plays. That’s what we have to do in the future.”