A nearly annual occurrence for the Tulane football team would be a first-time failure for Willie Fritz.
If the slumping Green Wave loses at East Carolina on Saturday night, Fritz will be guaranteed back-to-back losing seasons for the only time in his 25 years as a head coach.
Even counting his nine years as an assistant before then, Fritz had just two sub-.500 records before arriving in New Orleans.
“This is a different circumstance for me,” Fritz said. “You have to stay positive, you have to keep working hard and you have to be tough-minded. It’s human nature to give in when things aren’t going well. You can’t give in. You have to just keep pushing. We’re close right now.”
Maybe, but long slides are nothing new for the program he inherited in 2016. Tulane, which lost 17-16 at home to Cincinnati last Saturday when kicker Merek Glover hooked a 36-yard field goal with 1:21 left, is trying to avoid its seventh five-game skid in the past 13 years.
That includes a five-game losing streak in 2015 after Tulane started 2-2 in coach Curtis Johnson’s final year and a six-game slide last season under Fritz after the Wave started 3-2.
“We try not to think about the past,” said junior safety Roderic Teamer, a starter for both of those teams. “That’s something coach Fritz preaches to us. We don’t want to look at it as being in a slump. We’re really just trying to get over that hump and do what we have to do in order to win. We have to keep working hard and trusting in coach Fritz and his staff and knowing that they are going to lead us in the right direction.”
The performance at East Carolina will reveal plenty about the Wave’s mindset.
The Pirates (2-7, 1-4), who averaged nearly eight wins from 2006 to 2014, already are eliminated from bowl consideration for the third consecutive year. They have no tangible goal to play for, but they beat BYU 33-17 in their most recent home game and picked up a whopping 33 first downs in a 52-27 loss at Houston on Saturday.
Even though East Carolina ranks last nationally in total defense and scoring defense, there is no reason to think Tulane will have it easy. The Wave, favored by 5, already has lost twice as a favorite during its rough stretch.
“It really just comes down to overcoming these obstacles and everyone just keeping on the same page,” wide receiver Jabril Clewis said. “It gets late in the season, and people start getting that tired mindset. It takes everyone believing that we can get things turned around and this season can still be won.
“As long as you believe, you can achieve.”
Despite major breakdowns on both sides of the ball, Tulane can point to positives in its past three losses.
The Wave rallied from a 34-7 deficit against then-No. 16 South Florida to pull within 34-28 but could not get the ball back one more time.
The Wave dug itself out of a 35-0 hole at then-No. 24 Memphis to close within 35-19, but quarterback Jonathan Banks missed wide-open receiver Darnell Mooney for what could have been an 88-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
The Wave stopped Cincinnati late and drove 72 yards before a costly penalty led to Glover’s missed field goal.
Fritz blamed himself for not calling a timeout when he saw confusion as Tulane lined up to go for a fourth-and-1. Freshman guard Corey Dublin jumped early, forcing a field goal attempt from 5 yards farther back.
Teamer pointed his finger at the guys on the field, including himself.
“We need consistency whether we win or lose,” he said. “It’s one or two plays here and there we could have done better, and it’s not going to happen until we make it happen. It’s not on coach Fritz. It falls on us.”
The question is whether the Wave is capable of fixing mistakes that have cropped up over and over. When it struggled to run against Memphis, the absence of injured starting center Junior Diaz appeared to be a significant factor.
Diaz played the entire way against Cincinnati, and the ground game was even worse.
“Everybody’s just trying to step up for each other to keep the confidence up,” Diaz said. “As long as we get this win, then we build momentum for the next two weeks. That’s the mentality we have around here.”
One thing is certain: Fritz is not panicking.
“We’ve made minor modifications, but we’re not doing wholesale changes here,” he said. “That sends the wrong message.”
Fritz said junior-college transfer quarterback Jonathan Banks is getting more comfortable each week and healthier, too, after dislocating a finger on his throwing hand against South Florida. Banks’ body language had indicated some frustration with some of the play selection in recent weeks, but Fritz sees more significant issues.
“If you have a bad call and all 11 guys execute it, it ends up being a favorable result,” he said. “If you have the greatest call in the world and one guy goofs up, you’ve got a problem. It’s everybody working together.”
The last chance for salvation comes Saturday night. It won’t get any easier with bowl-bound Houston and SMU to close out the season.
“It all starts with one win,” Teamer said. “If we can go to East Carolina and win, that builds our confidence up before Houston comes here. We know that our mission is still there. We’ve just got to win out.”