With its American Athletic Conference opener finally here, it is time for the Tulane football team to hit the reset button.
As the Green Wave (1-3) prepared for its Friday night kickoff against Memphis (3-1, 0-1 AAC), coach Willie Fritz rotated two messages on the video board at Yulman Stadium, reminding his players the season was nowhere close to kaput — even after a disheartening start that will spell double trouble if they lose any self-belief or start freelancing.
The first message was simply: Do your job.
“Quit worrying about what other people are doing,” Fritz explained. “Just do what you’re supposed to do to the best of your ability.”
The second message: In-season heroes.
“Some guys play their best football in January, February, March, April, May, June, July and August,” Fritz said. “They really do a good job talking about it, and then you get in the meat of the season and they don’t play quite as well. This is when you need the great effort. This is when you need the great focus. This is when we need the tough guys, so we’ve talked about that quite a bit.”
To beat Memphis, the Green Wave will need heroics that have not been seen around these parts in 14 years — winning a game as more than a 10-point underdog at home. The Tigers, the reigning West Division champions and a preseason media pick to return to the league’s title game, are favored by 14.
Any lingering hangover from last Saturday’s 49-6 clobbering at Ohio State or close losses to Wake Forest and UAB would make Tulane’s task even tougher.
“We need to hold each other more accountable, because it can’t just come from the coaches,” senior safety Roderic Teamer said. “We're just trying to stay positive, and that's also a point of making sure the team knows that what happened previously, let it go. Move forward. We can still run the table.”
Getting past Memphis will require a cleaner performance in several departments, with Tulane ranking in the bottom half of the AAC in almost every statistical category. Physical problems like poor pass protection, inaccurate throws and soft pass coverage have been obvious, but a few of the issues are mental rather than physical.
For starters, the defense cannot afford the communication breakdowns that turned Ohio State’s prolific pass offense into an unstoppable juggernaut last Saturday. The Buckeyes cruised to six touchdowns in six possessions during the first half, and Memphis’ skill-position talent is as close to Ohio State’s as any team Tulane will face the rest of the year.
“There were a couple of times where we just turned guys loose,” Fritz said. “You just can't do that. You have to make calls out there and do some things. It was simple stuff where the offense calls a pick route. You've got to be able to communicate. If you don't communicate, they are going to run it all day. That's Day 1 (stuff). It's disappointing.”
On offense, the Wave cannot afford the wasted plays due to poor reads from quarterback Jonathan Banks that have hurt the team in the first four games. Deciding whether to hand off or keep the ball is a staple of Fritz’s system.
Eeven factoring out sacks, Ohio State stopped Tulane for losses on nine runs.
“The big thing we just want to do is get crisper at when to give and when to pull (the ball from the running back),” Fritz said. “There were a few times they (Ohio State) kind of ran at the mesh and we misread what we needed to do. We’ve just got to get better at that.”
Penalties have been a problem, too. The Wave ranks ninth out of 12 AAC teams with 60.2 penalty yards per game, including some crucial late infractions against Wake Forest and UAB.
“Our confidence isn’t down,” running back Darius Bradwell said. “It’s all minor mistakes that we’re doing. It’s not like we’re not competing against other teams. It’s not the other teams that are beating us. It’s stuff that we’re doing. We just have to put all the pieces together and finish.”
That is where the reset button comes in. The Wave, which upset Houston in its final home game of 2017, can change the negative tenor by finding the same high note in its first conference matchup of 2018.
“As far as the season goes, we’re 0-0 in conference,” senior cornerback Donnie Lewis said. “We definitely want to turn this program around, and in order to take that step in the right direction, we need to win some games heading into conference.”
Memphis — which has beaten Tulane 11 times in a row dating to 2000 — boasts the nation’s leading rusher in junior Darrell Henderson. He has gained 709 yards on 58 carries for an astounding 12.2-yard average per attempt, nearly 3½ yards better than anyone else.
“He can play for anybody,” Fritz said. “He would have started at Ohio State, probably. This is an excellent team. This is a top-20 team.”
If his assessment is accurate, Tulane will have to be at its absolute top level to give itself a chance. The Wave has not hit that peak yet this season.
“Our confidence is still high,” defensive end Cameron Sample said. “If we limit the mental errors, I feel like we’ll be in good shape. To start off with a team like Memphis, it’s really big for this program to get that first conference win.”