Tulane cornerback Parry Nickerson sized up the throw from East Carolina quarterback Gardner Minshew on a deep post pattern, undercut receiver Davon Grayson and laid out for a highlight-reel interception.
Then he stood up and wagged his finger at the Pirates sideline, indicating 'Don’t try me again' and helping Tulane snap a four-game slide with a dramatic 31-24 overtime win on Saturday night in Greenville, North Carolina.
It was a coming-out party for the Green Wave secondary, which proclaimed itself the best in the American Athletic Conference in August but had not lived up to that billing in the first nine games of the season.
This was what they promised. Junior cornerback Donnie Lewis, beaten for big plays against Cincinnati a week earlier, broke up six passes by the end of the third quarter. The Wave was credited with 12 deflections as a team and limited East Carolina to 25 completions in 53 attempts a week after the Pirates broke school and AAC records with 52 completions on 68 passes at Houston.
Against Tulane, ECU managed a measly 4.2 yards per pass attempt.
“All week the DBs had in our mind, this game is on us,” Lewis said. “That's what we said. 'This game is on us. If we can stop the pass and make them one-dimensional, we win.' ”
For much of the past two years, Lewis has struggled to finish plays even when he was in the right position. On Saturday night, he blanketed East Carolina’s talented receivers — four of them had produced 100-yard games this season.
“He really did a good job of playing the ball tonight,” said coach Willie Fritz, who has touted Lewis’ ability all along. “He's had a couple of tough deals this season, but he's a very fine corner, and he's getting better every week.”
It was not just Lewis. Safety Taris Shenall, inserted for true freshman Chase Kuerschen because of his coverage ability, was right on top of receivers consistently.
The big plays that haunted Tulane’s defense in recent weeks were almost non-existent. East Carolina’s longest reception was 28 yards, and no other pass gain went for more than 20.
“They did a great job of battling,” Fritz said. “We put them out on an island a bunch, and they really did a good job on 50-50 balls. We won more than our share.”
Nickerson outdid himself on his 14th career interception. His flying grab at the Tulane 11, which came immediately after the first of three Tulane second-half turnovers, had East Carolina’s post-game radio host raving about the talent of the Wave secondary two hours after the game ended.
The Mayor of Uptown, as Nickerson has been nicknamed, took his show on the road.
"I was right there,” Lewis said. “I watched him. Once I saw him look back at the ball, I said, 'Yeah, it's over with.' ”
Tulane, which led 17-14 at the time, never trailed thanks to plays like that.
“What an interception!” Fritz exclaimed. “What a big play. We needed it then. The momentum had kind of gone to their side. What an athletic play.”
Even the defensive linemen joined the breakups band. Robert Kennedy knocked down a pass, and Ade Aruna made one of the most important plays of the game, getting his hand up to deflect a fourth-down throw from wildcat quarterback Thomas Sirk that appeared ticketed for a touchdown when he released it.
The Wave made a boatload of mistakes in the second half with costly turnovers and critical penalties, but the team-wide effort allowed it to overcome them. Running back Dontrell Hilliard, who had a career-best 189 yards to get to 997 for the season, was half of a two-man pep talk with linebacker Rae Juan Marbley to inspire everyone to end the losing.
If the Wave does not win out, beating Houston and SMU the next two weeks, seniors like that Hilliard and Marbley will leave with four straight sub-.500 records.
“I just came to the team and Rae Juan came, and we told them do us a favor and go out with a bang and give us all that you've got each and every play,” Hilliard said. “Just focus on one play at a time and one game at a time and we'll be fine. It's tremendous motivation and tremendous momentum that we can take over to next week going against Houston. We are going to enjoy this win and stay focused and finish the season off right.”