As Tulane coach Curtis Johnson walked away from the postgame interview, he shook the hands of a few players waiting to be interviewed, but gave one a prolonged embrace.
It was junior punter Peter Picerelli.
“That was awesome tonight,” Johnson told him in a room filled with media. “You did a great job.”
It was the kind of moment Tulane’s special teams ached for. After weeks of frustration, highlighted by many mistakes in losing efforts, the Green Wave’s kicking game helped lift Tulane to a 12-3 win over Connecticut to snap a two-game skid.
While avoiding a glaring miscue was an improvement by itself, the Green Wave’s special teams did more than just maintain the mean. They accounted either directly or indirectly for five of Tulane’s 12 points and allowed a late Huskies comeback push to be rendered almost entirely meaningless.
“Special teams meetings had been tough for everyone because we definitely hadn’t been helping the team win,” Picerelli said. “It was nice to not cost the team anything big today. It was a little bit of a sigh of relief to do some positive things on special teams. Hats off to (secondary) coach (Jason) Rollins and everyone who took some extra time on special teams this week, because it really paid off.”
Picerelli, who saved at least two wayward snaps on acrobatic grabs earlier in the game, pinned UConn inside of its own 1-yard line midway through the third quarter. One play later, Royce LaFrance and Tyler Gilbert capitalized by wrapping up Max DeLorenzo for a safety.
Then, much-maligned kicker Andrew DiRocco came through. Less than two weeks after Johnson re-opened the competition at his position, the freshman (who entered the night having missed four of his first five field goals) wasn’t fazed when Johnson called on him to kick a 38-yard field early in the fourth quarter.
DiRocco cleanly delivered the kick and handed Tulane its first two-score lead of the night, taking pressure off the defense and causing an eruption on the Green Wave sideline.
“It was just amazing, it was like we won the World Series or the Super Bowl,” Johnson said. “One thing I like about our kids, they’re really, really behind him. They were jumping up and down, it was one of the best moments that you see.
“I was very very proud of DiRocco. We opened up the competition again this week, and here he goes again. He beat the guys out with the majority of his kicks, and when it was time to be called upon it was a great job kicking.”
Keeping it close
Tulane’s offensive players admitted the strategy changed a bit on Saturday night, but several players said it wasn’t because of new starting quarterback Nick Montana — it was the way UConn defended it.
Repeatedly, the Green Wave settled for short passes, stuck to the run in unfavorable down-and-distance situations and generally leaned on its defense rather than take offensive risks. It resulted in a turnover-free performance and Montana completing 19-of-26 passes for 135 yards.
It was the first time since 2001 Tulane finished consecutive games without a turnover.
“I felt that they were ready for us to try to use our speed and try to do a big play right out of the gate,” running back Sherman Badie said. “We want to play smart. We just ran what they gave us, and that’s what we did.”
Tanner Lee, who started the first five games at quarterback, injured his shoulder in Tulane’s 31-6 loss to Rutgers, and it’s uncertain if he’ll be able to return for the Green Wave’s 11 a.m. matchup at Central Florida on Saturday.
“I am feeling good,” Montana said. “I’m just happy to be out there, honestly.”
Not only did Tulane produce a bevy of turnovers and tally a safety, it also shut down UConn’s offense on nearly every attempt.
The Huskies’ 217 yards of offense were less than any Green Wave opponent had produced since Tulane throttled UAB 49-10 on Sept. 17, 2011. On Saturday, Tulane racked up 10 tackles-for-loss, including four sacks, which played a significant role in minimizing UConn’s offensive ability.
“The pass rush was really, really critical,” Johnson said. “You saw Royce (LaFrance) had a couple sacks. Sean Wilson, a true freshman, had a sack. I thought they played their best game.”
Tulane has forced a turnover in all six of its games this year and have tallied at least one takeaway in 15 consecutive games, dating back to a loss at Syracuse on Sept. 21, 2013. ... Montana completed passes to nine different receivers on Saturday, the most of any game this season. No receiver recorded more than three catches. ... Tulane’s top four tacklers on Saturday all came from the secondary. Safety Sam Scofield led the way with eight, followed by Brandon LeBeau, Darion Monroe and Parry Nickerson.