Near the end of a long series of questions about what had gone wrong for Tulane, coach Willie Fritz was asked what he liked most about his football team at his Tuesday news conference.
Despite the Green Wave's disappointing 2-4 start (1-1 in the American Athletic Conference), he answered with no hesitation.
“We have a great group of guys, without question,” he said. “We’ve played a bunch of good teams. Our goals are all still out there for us to accomplish. We have to move on, stay positive and do your job. At times like this, you get coaches who question the players and players who question the coaches. We don’t have that, which is excellent.
“We just need to keep working hard, stay on course and good things will happen.”
Although history is not on his side — Tulane last recovered from a 2-4 start to finish at or above .500 in 1981 — Fritz made a sound point about the present. Heading into its open date, Tulane has played the nation’s fourth hardest schedule based on opponents’ winning percentage, with Wake Forest, Nicholls State, UAB, Ohio State, Memphis and Cincinnati combining to go 27-8 (.771). No team in the country has played against FBS opponents with more combined wins than Tulane’s 23.
It is a much different story for the second half. Tulane’s six remaining opponents — SMU, Tulsa, South Florida, East Carolina, Houston and Navy — are 16-15. SMU, Tulsa, East Carolina and Navy have combined for three wins against FBS teams, and the struggling foursome lost by the composite score of 173-59 last weekend.
SMU (2-4, 1-1), which plays at Yulman Stadium on Oct. 20, has fallen by at least 23 points in each of its four defeats.
Tulsa (1-4, 0-2), which hosts Tulane on Oct. 27, is 1-9 in the AAC since the start of 2017.
East Carolina (2-3, 0-2), which travels to New Orleans on Nov. 10, was outgained 470-196 in a 49-6 loss to Temple on Saturday. The Pirates are 3-15 in the AAC under coach Scottie Montgomery.
Navy (2-3, 1-1), which faces Tulane in the Green Wave’s regular season finale at Yulman Stadium, lost 35-7 at Air Force and gave up 59 points to Hawaii in its opener.
Win the winnable games, and the Wave can do more than just become bowl eligible. Even if it loses at currently undefeated South Florida on Nov. 3, it would enter a Nov. 15 Thursday night contest at Houston as a legitimate contender in the AAC West division.
Fritz saw some positives in an otherwise disappointing 37-21 loss at Cincinnati on Saturday.
The defense forced two turnovers, stopped the Bearcats on fourth down twice and limited them to six conversions in 16 third-down attempts.
“You don’t want to use this as a crutch, but you take away five plays and we played really, really well defensively in the other (68) plays,” Fritz said. “We have to play better offensively and we made some crucial mistakes in the kicking game which we hadn’t done up to this point.”
Fritz remained just as non-committal about the quarterback competition between Jonathan Banks and Justin McMillan on Tuesday as he was on Monday. Banks played three series against Cincinnati, producing four first downs and zero points while completing 1 of 5 passes.
McMillan led three touchdown drives, but two of them started in Cincinnati territory after long kickoff returns. After completing his first two throws for 50 yards and a score, he went 9 of 24 for 80 yards with three sacks.
“My big deal is just talking to both of those guys just about execution of the offense,” Fritz said. “Just making sure that we’re doing an excellent job of running the offense. it’s always different with the quarterback position when there’s competition and there’s not a clear-cut guy. Jonathan (Banks) has done some great things for us, and I thought Justin stepped in and did some nice things as well.
“I feel like we’ve got two guys who can be very capable quarterbacks in our conference.”
Fritz said he hoped offensive tackle Noah Fisher, who has missed the last two games with a leg injury after starting the first four, would be available against SMU. … After Wednesday morning’s practice, the coaches will hit the road recruiting while the players enjoy fall break. … Fritz said the Wave worked on SMU for the last 30 minutes of Tuesday’s practice. … Players are off limits to interviews during the off week.