Heading into another tough challenge at Navy, the Tulane football team needs to grab some type of flotation device to keep it from sinking further into an abyss.
The numbers have been abysmal across the board for the Green Wave (2-4, 1-2 American Athletic Conference) through six games, with the offense, defense and special teams all contributing in varying degrees to blowout losses to Duke, Georgia Tech, Temple and Houston.
Plugging those gaping holes won’t be easy against Navy (4-1, 2-0), but the Wave can start by not beating itself on Saturday afternoon at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.
“We are just not playing smart enough,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “We’re not playing as well as we are coached to play, and part of that is because of the pressure being put on us by the other team. The teams we are playing are definitely good, and then all of a sudden we get behind and we get frustrated. I have to do a better job of helping those young men deal with that.”
Johnson referenced penalty issues — Tulane is tied for 104th nationally in penalty yards per games (71.0) — but the problems go much deeper. You name the statistic, and the story is the same.
The Wave ranks 118th out of 127 teams in scoring (19.5 points per game), 123rd in yards (297.2), 123rd in rushing (98.5), 126th in yards per carry (2.94) and 106th in pass efficiency.
The defensive numbers are a little better than the offense’s, but not by enough to make a difference. The Wave is 118th in points allowed (38.5), 95th in yards allowed (426.7), 81st against the run (177.3) and 109th in pass efficiency defense.
The troubles translate to situational statistics, too. Tulane is 122nd in third-down conversion percentage (.304) and 108th in third-down conversion percentage allowed (.448).
The only outlier is red zone scoring percentage. Tulane ranks 14th there thanks to nine touchdowns and four field goals in 14 trips inside the 20, but even that positive number comes with a caveat. Only one team, UTEP, has been to the red zone fewer times than Tulane’s 14.
The special teams have not helped, either. Although Tulane has missed only one of five goals—the spot where it was supposed to be weakest—it ranks 125th in net punting, 125th in kickoff return defense, 121st in punt return defense, 101st in punt returns and 115th in kickoff returns.
Those numbers don’t even include the drops by punters Peter Picerelli and Zach Block that set up easy touchdowns for opponents, the botched snap that allowed Duke to score a touchdown or the snap over Picerelli’s head that became a safety against Georgia Tech.
Quarterback Tanner Lee, returning from a concussion that sidelined him for the 42-7 loss to Houston on Oct. 16, still holds out hope for a turnaround.
“I think we’re confident in our ability,” he said. “We haven’t played well against good teams, but we know in the locker room that we’re better than what we’ve been showing. We’re looking forward to another opportunity to go play against a good team.”
Solving that slew of problems will be difficult against Navy, which rarely beats itself. The Midshipmen have committed four turnovers, had no kicks blocked and allowed no long returns on punts or kickoffs.
Priority No. 1 for the Wave will be slowing down Navy’s potent, option-based ground game. The Midshipmen have rushed for more than 300 yards against all five of their opponents, including a whopping 415 versus East Carolina.
Quarterback Keenan Reynolds rarely gives the ball to his tailbacks. He has rushed 102 times while handing it off to 6-foot-1, 245-pound Chris Swain 83 times. Another fullback, 6-foot-1, 253-pounder Quentin Ezell, has 33 carries.
The rest of the running backs have combined for 26 touches, and Reynolds has attempted only 31 passes.
“We really have to wrap up the fullback,” Tulane defensive tackle Tanzel Smart said. “We’re coached up well against the dive. This game is not about physicality. It’s a discipline game, so everybody has to be in their gap. If we tackle well, we should be fine.”
Tulane struggled with its assignments and tackling against Georgia Tech earlier this year, losing 65-10 while giving up 439 rushing yards to a similar triple-option system as Navy’s. Senior safety Darion Monroe, who sets the defense before the snap, missed that game because of a suspension, and the Wave will need him even more against Navy.
“Formation-wise, Georgia Tech is not as dynamic as Navy,” Johnson said. “Navy gets in all of the formations and a lot of personnel groups with a lot of unbalanced sets. If we can line up with them, we’ll have a good chance of playing with those guys.”
Even if the defense plays well, it will need more help than the offense has given it in the first half of the season. Tulane has averaged 8.5 points in its four losses.
“We’ve got to be consistent because that’s what they (the Midshipmen) are going to do,” Lee said. “They are going to be on top of their game. They are not going to bust any assignments. They are going to make tackles, and you just have to be able to make plays.”
Redshirt freshman DT Eldrick Washington is out with high ankle sprain he sustained in Wednesday’s practice. Johnson said junior Calvin Thomas would replace him in the rotation. … CB Richard Allen will return as a starter after missing the two previous games with a sprained ankle.