It is SMU week for the Tulane football team, bringing back memories of the touchdown that was not a touchdown on the last play of the 2017 season — a controversy that spawned the #BanksWasIn hashtag and t-shirts expressing the same sentiment for furious fans.
This time, the question is if quarterback Jonathan Banks will get in the game at all during Saturday’s rematch with the Mustangs at Yulman Stadium. Infamously ruled an inch short of the end zone at SMU when a score would have propelled the Green Wave to a bowl game, he never left the sideline in the second half of the 37-21 loss to Cincinnati on Oct. 6.
Tulane has a two-man quarterback competition coming off its open date, and coach Willie Fritz is not tipping his hand about the plan for Banks and LSU transfer Justin McMillan. After Banks was in for the first two series at Cincinnati, he was out in favor of McMillan for all but one possession the rest of the way.
“We are going to see how the week plays out exactly what we’re going to do,” Fritz said after Monday’s practice. “We’ll see how everything goes. They are both doing a nice job, though.”
Despite a disappointing 2-4 start, Fritz remained positive after Tulane practiced Tuesday morning during its open week.
After Tuesday’s workout, Fritz was no more illuminating.
“We’re still competing and looking at that this week,” he said. “So that’s good we have some competition.”
Whether he was being coy or simply had not decided yet, the choice could have major implications. Even though Tulane (2-4, 1-1 American Athletic Conference) and SMU (2-4, 1-1) have struggled against similarly tough first-half schedules, Saturday’s winner will gain sole possession of second place in the AAC West at worst and would be tied for first if Houston (5-1, 2-0) loses at Navy.
“It's pretty early to start talking about that,” Fritz said. “We just need to get a win. That’s the big thing. We need a win.”
Tulane is favored by a touchdown according to Las Vegas bookmakers, its largest number in five years of AAC play. Still, the Wave will need better production at quarterback than through its first six games.
Banks, a junior college transfer in his second year as the starter, has completed only 49.6 percent of his passes, a significant drop from 56.6 percent last season and dramatic fall from the 63.6 percent he produced in the final four games.
Just as significantly, he has struggled at times to make the correct reads on whether to keep the ball, hand off or throw.
McMillan, who threw a touchdown pass on his first snap after Banks cramped up in Tulane’s 40-24 upset of Memphis on Sept. 28, extended his career numbers to 6 for 6 with two completions and another scoring toss after entering against Cincinnati. He went 9 of 24 the rest of the way, though, and does not have total command of the offense after arriving near the end of August.
Banks and McMillan shared practice repetitions on Tuesday. It is unclear whether they will share time on Saturday.
Tulane has an open date this weekend and will entertain SMU on Oct. 20 at 2:30 p.m.
“I’m not opposed to doing it,” Fritz said. “ You want to make sure the guys get into a rhythm and maybe go a couple series or whatever. But we haven’t determined whether we’re going to play one or two or a combination of the two, whatever the case may be.”
Banks has two pluses working in his favor. He played the best game of his career in the 41-38 loss to SMU last season, throwing for 314 yards, and he was having his best game this year against Memphis in his last home contest before his cramping issues.
The decision may hinge on what style of offense the coaches feel works best against SMU, which ranks in the bottom half of the AAC in rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. McMillan is the better pure passer. Banks is the better scrambler, even if the referees at SMU game refused to believe he crossed the goal line last November.
"Both of them are great players,” safety Roderic Teamer said. “They do things different, so yeah, it's obviously a change in tempo. It's not the same guy out there."
Will Banks be in or out? Fritz insisted the competition was a result of strength rather than weakness.
“I’ve had some season where I’ve played two and been very successful,” he said. “I’ve had some years where I couldn’t figure out who to play because [both quarterbacks were bad. So it’s good when we’ve got some good ones.”