ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Tulane showed tremendous fortitude after adversity hit from from all angles Saturday against Navy.
Unfortunately for the Green Wave, that toughness did not pay off where it mattered most. A key series of events left Tulane on the wrong side of a 23-21 loss.
With a chance to get the ball back and erase a 2-point deficit in the final two minutes, the Wave had mass confusion when Navy elected to punt coming off a timeout on fourth-and-6 at its own 49.
Expecting a longer timeout, coach Willie Fritz sent out the the punt return team at the last second, but the ball was snapped before several defensive players reached the sideline.
Tulane, which had no timeouts left, was penalized 5 yards for having too many men on the field.
“Bad job by me,” Fritz said. “We were waiting for (the officials) to allow us to match, and they didn’t allow us to match. Boy, they went quick. We should have just kept the defense out there on the field. Miscommunication.”
Navy quarterback Zach Abey then picked up the first down, allowing Navy to run out the clock and preserve a victory that that left Tulane shy of what could have been a signature American Athletic Conference-opening victory in Fritz’s second year.
“It’s extremely tough,” said Tulane quarterback Johnathan Brantley, who passed for 58 yards and ran for a team-high 73 after starter Jonathan Banks was lost to an unspecified injury in the second quarter. “It comes down to the small plays and the small mistakes in close games.”
Tulane (1-1) still is trying to learn how to convert tight ones into program-changing victories. Navy improved to 15-2 in AAC regular-season games.
“They (the Midshipmen) have a culture of winning, and we’ve got to get that same thing going,” Fritz said. “There were a lot of close plays.”
The loss was familiar, but this was not the same weak-minded Wave as in the past. Tulane, a 13-point underdog, fought back after a cataclysmic 11-minute stretch that turned a 13-7 second-quarter lead into a 23-13 deficit. A sample of the slip-ups:
- Redshirt freshman kicker Coby Neenan missed his third extra point in two weeks.
- Cornerback Donnie Lewis missed a tackle that turned a first-down gain into a 79-yard touchdown pass, Navy’s longest in seven years.
- Nickelback Jarrod Franklin missed a tackle on an option pitch that turned triply bad. Navy ended up with first-and-goal from the 1 instead of third-and-long, starting defensive end Quinlan Carroll was ejected for targeting and safety Roderic Teamer limped off with an injury.
- Freshman safety Chase Kuerschen, in for Teamer, forced a fumble on the next play, but Navy tackle Andrew Wood recovered it in the end zone for another touchdown.
- Center Junior Diaz snapped the ball when Brantley wasn’t ready, forcing running back Dontrell Hilliard to flip it out the back of the end zone for a safety with 7:11 left in the third quarter.
From that misfortune came renewed resolve.
The defense limited Navy to three first downs in its next four series, including a sack by linebacker Luke Jackson when Navy gambled on fourth-and 12 with a 2-point lead.
Brantley led a 16-play, 83-yard touchdown drive that included one fourth-and-1 conversion from the Tulane 26 and another from the Navy 27. Tight end Charles Jones then stretched the ball inside the pylon on a surprise 2-point conversion attempt, cutting the deficit to 23-21 with 12:56 left.
Brantley’s 12-yard run after Niumatalolo’s curious fourth-down decision put the Wave at the Midshipmen’s 27 and achingly close to the lead that never came.
A holding call on offensive lineman Keyshawn McLeod sidetracked the drive before Brantley’s fourth-down pass was batted down.
“I put the defense in a bad spot, but fortunately they held tight,” Niumatalolo said. “I don’t know why I did that.”
Fritz, who said last year’s 21-14 loss to Navy was his first when his team was plus-two or better in turnover margin, had it happen again. Outplayed early while accomplishing next to nothing offensively, Tulane tied the score when linebacker Rae Juan Marbley forced an Abey fumble and Teamer returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.
The Wave stopped Navy’s opening drive on cornerback Parry Nickerson’s 11th career interception, just outside the goal line.
“We knew we had to come out and be really physical, nasty and gritty,” Marbley said. “We did a good job of that, but we definitely have some things to go back and work on.”
They desperately wanted to make those adjustments off a victory instead of a loss. After Abey broke off a 54-yard run on the opening drive, he gained only 67 yards on his final 23 rushes, even factoring out sacks. Navy finished with 326 yards, its lowest total in AAC regular-season play since Tulane’s held it to 291 in its last visit two years ago.
“We needed to come up with more plays,” defensive end Ade Aruna said. “We had some injuries, but that’s not an excuse for us to lose this game.”