Tulane wide receiver Devon Breaux ran a slant pattern late in the first half against Houston and got clobbered just as the ball arrived, falling to the turf in a heap.
That about summed up the Green Wave’s experience against the No. 24 Cougars on Friday night at Yulman Stadium in its 42-7 loss on national television.
After beating FCS opponent Maine and winless Central Florida back-to-back, Tulane has been overmatched, learning just how far away it is from the upper-echelon American Athletic Conference teams.
This time, the Wave was dead on arrival, getting penalized and punting in rapid-fire fashion while the defense gave up far too many big plays. Looking for a fast start following a 49-10 loss at undefeated Temple, Tulane (2-4, 1-2) self-destructed immediately against the undefeated Cougars (6-0, 3-0).
Freshman Devin Glenn did not get back to the 20 on the opening kickoff return. Tulane was penalized 10 yards for an illegal block on its first snap, failing to pick up a first down. Then, on the punt, the Wave was called for holding, giving the Cougars the ball at the Tulane 49 after the penalty was marked off.
On the next play, cornerback Parry Nickerson fell down twice trying to cover receiver Chance Allen on a streak pattern, handing an easy touchdown to Houston.
Tulane went three-and-out again, and punt returner Demarcus Ayres made eight players miss on a 37-yard return to the Wave 33.
“It was just the worst start we could possibly have,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “It was very frustrating.”
With backup Devin Powell starting in place of injured quarterback Tanner Lee, Tulane failed to pick up a first down on its first four possessions, finally getting one on series No. 5 due to a late hit after Powell ran out of bounds on third-and-long.
“We knew we had to get Devin some momentum and get him going,” Johnson said. “We didn’t do that at all.”
The defense, which played well in spurts, gave up too many big gains and helped Houston with too many penalties, drawing a string of personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct calls.
“We let our emotions get the best of us today and last week,” senior safety Darion Monroe said. “We get too many personal fouls after the play. It just can’t happen. We can’t have those things. That set us back. It doesn’t have anything to do with the coaches. It’s just players. We have to fix it, and we’re going to do it in-house.”
Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. scored on the first play of the second quarter to match the touchdown the Cougars had on their opening snap of the first quarter. Ward’s score came courtesy of a disputed roughing the passer penalty on linebacker Nico Marley after Tulane stopped Houston on third-and-14, a call that was even more frustrating because coach Curtis Johnson had accepted a holding penalty on the previous play instead of making it fourth-and-4.
“It’s hard to go out there and make so many mistakes and know that this game could have been different,” Monroe said. “We had a lot of dumb penalties and fouls.”
Ayers set up Houston’s third touchdown — another easy run by Ward — with a 40-yard reception after running uncovered down the middle of the field.
Ayers finished off the Wave later in the second quarter by scoring untouched on an end-around from 15 yards to give Houston a 28-7 lead.
Even without the mistakes, Tulane could not contain Ward, who led Houston with 554 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns entering the game while completing 72.5 percent of his passes. He accounted for 263 of the Cougars’ 303 yards in the first half, eluding would-be tacklers repeatedly and either running for a first down or finding an open receiver.
He finished 17 of 25 for 222 yards and also rushed 14 times for 77 yards with three scores.
“He’s good,” Monroe said. “That’s why he’s getting votes right now for the Heisman. He does things with his legs that other quarterbacks can’t do. If you blitz him and you miss him, he can go for a touchdown. We played fairly well on him, but he hurt us on a lot of third downs.”
Powell, who won his previous two starts in 2013, struggled all the way, alternating high and low throws. He was 11-of-28 for 88 yards before getting pulled in the fourth quarter.
Lee sat out with a concussion he suffered against Temple, and his status for Tulane’s trip to Navy next Saturday has not been determined.
“He’s going through the concussion protocol,” Johnson said. “I’m on my knees praying he’ll be there.”
As the game got out of hand, frustration mounted. Marley was called for a personal foul after Ward scored Houston’s second touchdown. Defensive tackle Tanzel Smart was assessed an unsportsmanlike penalty in the third quarter.
The Wave racked up 12 penalties for 133 yards.
Houston was undisciplined, too, but had no trouble overcoming its errors. After an Ayers punt return for a touchdown was wiped out by a holding penalty in the first half, he returned one 73 yards for a score in the third quarter.
The Wave had one moment to relieve its suffering when upback Rob Kelley ran 43 yards to the Houston 3 on a nifty fake punt in the second quarter, setting up a touchdown by Dontrell Hilliard as the Wave closed the gap — temporarily — to 14-7.
A successful fake against UCF in Tulane’s previous home game sparked a 24-point spurt. This time, Houston ran off the next 28 points.