A red flag in the Tulane football team’s 2-4 start was the startling number of yellow handkerchiefs on the field.
Penalty after penalty made life difficult for the Green Wave (2-4, 1-1 American Athletic Conference), and coach Willie Fritz knows a second-half turnaround will be much easier without that slew of uncharacteristic, correctable mistakes.
Coming off an open date, Tulane is tied for ninth in the AAC in penalty yards per game (71.0) and tied for 106th nationally entering Saturday’s matchup with SMU (2-4, 1-1) at Yulman Stadium. No Fritz team has averaged more than 55 penalty yards since 2012, encompassing his final season at Sam Houston State, a two-year stint at Georgia Southern and his first two seasons in New Orleans.
“I always talk about Wave not beating the Wave, particularly on pre-snap or post-play penalties,” he said. “Those are the ones you control. Some of the other ones are very subjective with interference or holding or whatever the case may be. But on delay of game or illegal formation or lining up in the neutral zone, we’ve got to make sure we eliminate those kinds of penalties.”
Too many of Tulane’s 47 infractions are the type Fritz abhors. The Wave has been flagged 13 times for false starts alone, with guards Dominique Briggs (three) and John Leglue (two) and tackle Keyshawn McLeod (two) the multiple offenders. Another one on running back Stephon Huderson helped stifle a late drive against Wake Forest when the Wave was on the verge of getting into field goal range in a tie game.
A 12-men on the-field penalty handed Cincinnati a first down on fourth-and-2 at the Tulane 30 two weeks ago. The Bearcats capitalized with a touchdown pass on the next play.
Linebacker Lawrence Graham pushed Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ritter well after he had run out of bounds on a first-quarter scramble, drawing a late-hit penalty. It was one of eight personal fouls called on the Wave this year, including three on linebacker Marvin Moody, although not all of them were as clear-cut as Graham’s.
“I over-pursued and felt over-committed to it and just had to do it,” Graham said. “It’s a real thin line. You want to be aggressive, you want everybody to feel you, but you have to be a smart player at the end of the day. I realize that, and our coaches do a good job of teaching us, like, OK, we know you’re trying to make a play, but what you did cost us.”
Fritz is not a clean freak when it comes to penalties. It is worth noting that 10th-ranked Central Florida, which has not lost in two years, is tied with Tulane in penalty yards. UCF, Memphis and South Florida finished among the bottom five of the AAC in penalties a year ago while combining to go 33-5.
Fritz’s teams have finished with more penalty yards than their opponents in 15 of his last 20 years as a coach, including Central Missouri’s whopping 94.3 yards per game in 2002.
But Tulane does not have enough margin for error to win at its current penalty rate. A year ago, it averaged fewer than six infractions and 48 penalty yards when it came an inch away from a bowl game.
Similar numbers in the second half of 2018 would give the Wave a much better chance for a postseason contest.
“We want our guys to play with energy and aggressiveness, but you have to be smart and know when to stop and when to continue,” said safety Roderic Teamer, whose only penalty this year was on special teams. “That's something we're obviously going to focus on.”
Running back Darius Bradwell believes it can be the difference between success or failure. He pointed to his own false start when Tulane trailed 30-14 and faced a third-and-7 at the Cincinnati 33 on what became an empty possession early in the fourth quarter.
“My mind before the play, I was thinking, oh, this is about to be a touchdown,” he said. “But I false started and put my team in a situation where it did not benefit us. Plenty of times in close games we’ve just hurt ourselves. We’ve been in situations where we could have come back and won and had a false start or holding or block in the back. If we just eliminate those, I feel like we can win all six of our (remaining) games.”
Jonathan Banks and Justin McMillan continued to split practice repetitions on Wednesday morning with no announcement of the pecking order at quarterback. … Freshman running back Cameron Carroll is practicing after missing two weeks with conjunctivitis (pinkeye). Fritz said he likely would be redshirted while being used on special teams in the four games the NCAA allows for redshirts under a new rule.
Infamously ruled an inch short of the goal line on a game-deciding scramble at SMU to end 2017, Jonathan Banks did not leave the sideline in the second half against Cincinnati on Oct. 6.
Despite a disappointing 2-4 start, Fritz remained positive after Tulane practiced Tuesday morning during its open week.