Leading SMU by four points with a little more than two minutes left in the fourth quarter last November, Tulane had the Mustangs right where it should have wanted them.
They faced a third-and-13 at the 19 and appeared one play away from having to convert a longshot fourth-down attempt to stay alive.
Instead, SMU receiver Trey Quinn got wide open in the end zone for an easy touchdown, and the Wave came up empty on football’s most important down. Again.
After playing second-rate third-down defense in back-to-back years, improving in that department is a must for Tulane to realize its bowl hopes. The Wave ranked 112th out of 129 FBS teams in stopping third downs last season, allowing opponents to convert 44.4 percent.
The Wave wasn't much better in 2016, placing 96th as opponents converted 42.9 percent.
“We are well aware of it and we are addressing it,” defensive coordinator Jack Curtis said. “We started third-and-long (situational work) on the second day of practice, and that’s far sooner than we had done it in the past. We are working extremely hard. I don’t know if I can put my finger on one thing to fix. It’s a number of things.”
SMU’s long conversion was one of 13 times opponents either scored or moved the chains when facing third-and-10 or more. An issue that appeared harmless when Grambling converted three in a row from long range during a 43-14 Tulane blowout in the season opener became a serious hang-up.
Memphis completed a pass for 22 yards on third-and-13 from its own 10 to spark one of its five first-half touchdowns. Facing third-and-10, East Carolina gained 11 yards on a screen from its 25 on the way to answering an early Tulane touchdown. The Pirates then tied the score at 14 courtesy of a 28-yard completion on another third-and-10, turning a potentially comfortable Wave win into an overtime nail-biter.
“That’s something we looked at all summer,” coach Willie Fritz said. “There are things we have to tweak and do a little bit differently. That’s what you have to analyze in the summer. Opinion means nothing if it’s not driven by data.”
Every position is on alert.
“We just look at it as a team effort — the D-line getting pressure, the secondary covering and the linebackers making reads to cover backs on screens,” senior safety Roderic Teamer said. “It made us realize how many athletes you have to put on the field on third down.”
Teamer said part of the problem was defending mobile quarterbacks. South Florida’s Quinton Flowers, a once-in-a-decade talent, ran for first downs on third-and-6, third-and-10 and third-and-15 as the Bulls went ahead 28-0 at Yulman Stadium.
The Wave will not have to face Flowers again but plans to be ready for running quarterbacks on third-and-long.
“Having linebackers and safeties who can key in on that and recover if the quarterback does scramble will be important this year,” Teamer said. “Those were the guys really hurting us.”
Statistically, Tulane’s third-down defense worsened as the year went along. The Wave allowed its last five opponents to convert 33 of 65 (50.1 percent).
Still, it was not all doom and gloom. After failing to stop a third-and-1 conversion through nine games, the defense came up huge in overtime at East Carolina, stuffing running back Darius Pinnix on fourth-and-goal from the 1. A week later, Tulane nailed Houston quarterback D’Eriq King for no gain on third-and-1 and forced an incomplete pass on fourth down with less than three minutes left, preserving a 20-17 upset.
The focus on third downs needs to be there from start to finish this season.
“We call it the winning down,” cornerback Donnie Lewis said. “We’ve just been emphasizing playing to the sticks in practice and understanding where you can and can’t be.”
With the Saints headed out of town, Tulane practiced at their indoor facility Wednesday afternoon and will be there again on Thursday. … The Wave had a 54-play, rain-delayed closed scrimmage Tuesday night at Yulman Stadium. Said Fritz: “You gotta get a little bit of tackling in. It went well.” … Starting defensive tackle Robert Kennedy missed practice with an unspecified injury, but Fritz said he hoped to have back on the field Thursday. … Fritz said offensive tackle Noah Fisher tweaked an ankle early in Wednesday’s workout and was held out the rest of the way as a precaution.