A mantra of Tulane football coach Willie Fritz is Wave don’t beat the Wave, an admonition to avoid the unforced mistakes that can sink a team.
But that's exactly what Tulane did in Thursday night’s oh-so-close season-opening overtime loss to Wake Forest at Yulman Stadium. The attention-grabbing turnover beads were counterbalanced by penalty misdeeds as crucial infractions cost the Wave a huge opportunity for a signature victory against a Power Five opponent.
“We shot ourselves in the foot,” Fritz said. “We’ve got to do a good job of learning from this and not replicating the mistakes that we made. A bunch of them are correctable. We have to play better and smarter.”
Tulane’s 83 penalty yards was the fourth-highest total in Fritz’s 25 games as coach, and the Wave has lost all four of those contests. Of the Wave's nine infractions, the last two were the costliest.
Running back Stephon Huderson moved early for a false start on second-and-9 from the Wake Forest 35 when Tulane needed one more first down to set up a tie-breaking field goal attempt in the final minute. Quarterback Jonathan Banks received heavy pressure on the next two plays, scrambling for 2 yards before stepping up in the pocket to avoid a pass rusher and throwing short of wide receiver Terren Encalade near the 10.
With the field goal out of reach, Tulane had to punt from the 38 and settle for overtime.
“That penalty helped us kind of put them back on their heels,” Demon Deacons linebacker Justin Strand said. “It put them in a situation where they had to throw more and that helped us on that series.”
The crushing blow came on the first play of the extra session. Offensive tackle Noah Fisher was called for grabbing a facemask, pushing Tulane back 15 yards and well out of field goal range. The Wave never recovered, failing to score, and Wake Forest reached the end zone on its possession with seven consecutive runs to win 23-17.
Almost every Tulane penalty hurt, and the pain started on the opening series when guard Dominique Briggs was flagged for a false start after Encalade raced 36 yards to the Wake Forest 26. That promising drive ended at the 35, forcing a punt.
Later in the first half, Tulane had the ball at the Wake Forest 36 when tight end Kendall Ardoin committed a personal foul with an illegal cut block outside the tackle box. The Wave ended up punting again.
Cornerback Thakarius Keyes was called for grabbing the face mask twice in the second half. His first mistake turned what would have been a third-and-10 into a first down at the Tulane 49, leading to a go-ahead field goal for Wake Forest.
With true freshman quarterback Sam Hartman carving up the secondary, Tulane could not afford those mistakes. Hartman threw for 378 yards, the 10th highest total in Wake Forest history, overcoming a pair of interceptions that had cornerback Donnie Lewis and linebacker Lawrence Graham having beads placed around their neck on the sideline as the Wave modified Miami’s turnover chain sensation for New Orleans.
Banks, who threw for 281 yards, would have passed for more than 300 if Tulane’s offense had been in synch early. He completed two of his first eight throws. Encalade, Jacob Robertson and Jabril Clewis hurt his cause with drops of varying difficulty.
“It was just first-game jitters, definitely,” Banks said. “It’s just simple things. We’ve got to get back to the basics, just throwing and catching. I felt like I missed a lot of throws.”
Fritz pointed to pass protection problems as well, particularly in the second half when Banks repeatedly had to scramble to get away from pressure, and some pre-snap misreads.
“There were a few (run-pass options) we might have had some good rips on,” Fritz said. “There were a couple of times we might have liked to throw and we ran it, and vice versa. You can simulate all that in practice, but it’s real different in a game.”