THE NEXT LEVEL: Now or never: 2-6 Tulane needs 4-game winning streak to get to bowl
At media day in August, coach Curtis Johnson said he would be “very disappointed” if Tulane did not get to a bowl game.
With four weeks left in the season, the Green Wave’s margin for error is down to zero, a sobering reality for a team that has made a ton of mistakes from start to finish while being outscored 303-144 and stumbling to a 2-6 record.
Pressure has mounted on Johnson to show progress, but he insisted this week his internal pressure outweighed anything from the outside.
“I don’t think anybody can put more pressure on me than I put on myself,” he said. “When I lose, I’m very upset at myself. I stay up all night.
“I do all of the things necessary for the work that I have to put in.”
Tulane’s schedule is light the rest of the way, but the odds of winning four in row appear long. Consider this nugget: The Wave has won one game outside of Louisiana in four years under Johnson but would have to win twice in two weeks at Army and SMU to stay alive.
And that scenario would remain in play only if Tulane beats UConn (4-5, 2-3 AAC) at Yulman Stadium on Saturday as a six-point underdog.
The Wave absolutely, positively needs to improve in several areas to give itself a good chance against Connecticut.
1. No comedy of errors on kickoffs. Tulane has started 15 drives inside its own 20-yard line after kickoff returns, due to a combo platter of penalties, poor blocking and poor decisions. That’s a killer for the offense.
2. Third-down futility. It’s understandable the Wave offense has struggled on third downs, converting only 33.6 percent of the time, the third worst figure in the AAC. The issue is symptomatic of a unit-wide problem. But the defense has been even more miserable on third downs, allowing an AAC-worst 45.7 percent conversions.
3. Penalty parade. Tulane ranks eighth in the AAC in penalty yards per game (69.5) and was flagged a season-high 12 times for a whopping 133 yards in its last home game against Houston. It is hard to win that way.
Time is running out to find a winning formula.
“Early in the season we won two in a row, and now we have to go try to win four in a row,” Johnson said. “It’s hard, but life’s hard.”
1. Welcome back, Tanner Lee
After missing two of the past three games (concussion and then a finger injury), Lee practiced all week and will start at quarterback. In his absence, Devin Powell went 11 for 28 for 88 yards in a 42-7 loss to Houston and Jordy Joseph went 10 of 24 for 131 yards in a 41-13 loss to Memphis. Lee went 22 for 31 for 205 yards in his last start (Navy). Even with a splint on one finger, he is Tulane’s best option.
2. Vulnerable defense
UConn is pretty good defensively but nothing like Lee has faced in his last two starts against Temple and Navy, two of the AAC’s best. The Huskies allow 4.8 yards per rush, the fourth-worst total in the league, and opponents have completed 61.5 percent of their passes. Tulane should be able to have a balanced offense. The line is not good enough to protect Lee when the Wave is one-dimensional.
3. Turnover time
Tulane’s defense, which has made its living off takeaways, forced no turnovers in the past two games, the first time that has happened in Johnson’s tenure. The Wave has to be more opportunistic. Last year, it beat the Huskies in large part due to three turnovers. This season, UConn has intercepted 14 passes and is plus-seven in turnover margin. If the Wave loses the turnover battle, it will lose the game.
4. All hands on deck
Tulane is healthier on offense than it has been in a while, with Lee in the fold, RB Lazedrick Thompson (ankle sprain) likely back after missing four games and OT Arturo Uzdavinis passing the concussion protocol. Although Dontrell Hilliard carried a season-high 19 times against Memphis, Johnson now has a choice of Hilliard, Sherman Badie and Thompson, his three best runners.