Because of its history of following big wins with bad losses, Tulane’s homecoming game against 2-7 East Carolina is a scary proposition.
The present-day Pirates are scarier than their record indicates, too.
For a team that is winless (0-5) in the American Athletic Conference, they enter Saturday’s matchup against the resurgent Green Wave (4-5, 3-2) with a host of legitimate playmakers. Anyone who thinks Tulane can win without its best effort after clobbering South Florida on Saturday may want to reconsider.
“(The Pirates) have excellent talent,” Tulane coach Willie Fritz said. “They have a good team. When we went up there and played them last year (the Green Wave won 31-24 in overtime), I was very impressed. They have a lot of tall, long guys.”
The best and the brightest are receiver Trevon Brown and defensive end Nate Harvey.
Brown, a first-team preseason All-AAC pick by Phil Steele and Athlon’s magazine, is living up to that billing and more. He leads the league with 104.8 receiving yards per game and has torched Houston (13 catches, 153 yards, one touchdown), Central Florida (10-145, TD) and Memphis (10-193, two TDs) in the past three contests.
Harvey, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound former walk-on running back who transferred from Georgia Military College in 2017, has put up other-worldly numbers. Awarded a scholarship this summer, he leads the nation with 20 tackles for loss and is second with 9½ sacks, including a three-game stretch of at least three stops behind the line of scrimmage against Old Dominion, Temple and Houston.
“He just jumps off of the ball,” Fritz said. “Probably, originally, the design of the defense was for him to drop a little bit. But they figured out ‘maybe we just need to have him go this way.’ He does a good job.”
Brown and Harvey are not alone.
Freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers, a three-star recruit who started for the first time two weeks ago, threw for 406 yards against UCF and 449 yards with three touchdowns against Memphis. He also leads the Pirates with 374 rushing yards, proving difficult to tackle with his elusiveness and size (6-3, 236).
Ahlers will be a tough assignment for a Tulane defense that, in AAC games, ranks second in yards allowed and among the top half of the league in virtually every statistical category.
“Our DBs have to come to play, which I know they will do,” outside linebacker Patrick Johnson said. “The defensive line just has to play sound, get pressure on the quarterback when we can and be smart. We have to keep contain on him. He’s a big guy, so we’re going to have to wrap him up and bring a lot of thump to that hit.”
Ahlers said this week he wants to become the best quarterback in East Carolina history, surpassing former NFL players David Garrard and Jeff Blake.
“He is getting better and better,” East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery said. “He’s starting to understand the offense. It’s starting to come to him a little bit more.”
Kendal Futrell, the Pirates’ other starting defensive end, had 4½ sacks. They rank third nationally in tackles for loss, first in the AAC with 27 sacks, third in the conference in yards allowed and third in rushing yards allowed.
Tulane, which rushed for more than 300 yards in back-to-back wins against Tulsa and South Florida, might have to diversify its offense Saturday. Since taking over as the starter for Jonathan Banks, quarterback Justin McMillan has thrown only 30 passes, completing 14.
“Any team that watched those games can see we can run the ball,” McMillan said. “It’s not a secret, so I know teams are really going to work hard on stopping our run game and put us in third and longs. My job as the quarterback is to make sure on every aspect of this offense, we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”
A letdown, which Tulane experienced at Cincinnati after pummeling Memphis, would be lethal as the Wave pursues its first bowl bid in five years and first division championship since joining the AAC in 2014.
“We react better with pressure,” running back Darius Bradwell said. “I wish that was not the case, but we know we have to win these games. If we had this mentality in the beginning, our record would be a whole lot better. We just have to be mentally focused on what we’ve been doing and don’t get complacent. I’ve been taught that complacency is the worst disease you can ever have.”
They have developed an abundance of another “C” word.
"We are extremely confident, but we know that each week we have to continue to put in the work,” graduate transfer offensive tackle Noah Fisher said. “We started 2-5, so we know nothing is guaranteed. We just have to keep building and we know we can reach our goal."
They would like an assist from their fans. For the first time since Tulane moved into Yulman Stadium in 2014, it has won two in a row entering a home game.
Momentum has arrived.
“I want to get a lot of people in for this homecoming and just build this atmosphere for Tulane,” McMillan said. “We’re on a good roll right now, and getting the hype behind us and more people in the stands will be fun.”