Tulane’s new season was met with old problems.
In the Green Wave’s uninspiring 37-7 opening night loss to Duke last Thursday, not only did the offense sputter but the special teams’ woes reappeared.
While sloppiness abounded in nearly every aspect of the kicking game, critical miscues were seared into the memory of coach Curtis Johnson and the Green Wave fans, who expected to see improvement after an offseason of prioritizing the game’s third phase.
Instead of unveiling a more organized unit than the 2014 special teams, which bungled away a handful of opportunities en route to a 3-9 season, the first game of 2015 resembled more of an encore than an overhaul.
The most egregious errors came late in the fourth quarter, when the Blue Devils extended a manageable 16-0 lead into a 30-7 advantage thanks to special teams breakdowns in three minutes. First, long snapper Mike Lizanich feebly rolled a punt snap less than two yards, forcing upback Robert Kelley to fall on it inside Tulane’s own 20-yard-line.
One play later, the Blue Devils scored a game-sealing touchdown. The miscue prompted Tulane to make a change for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. contest against No. 15 Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
“Yeah, (I was) very disappointed,” Johnson said. “We are going to go with (guard) John Leglue on short snaps. Lizanich will continue to do the long snaps, but enough is enough. I think Lizanich definitely has the talent to do it, but he just has to do it every time, which isn’t that much to ask.”
Just two minutes after the bungled snap, when Tulane connected on a 76-yard touchdown pass to Devon Breaux to gain a modicum of momentum, Duke used the kicking game to snatch it back. Kickoff specialist Trevor Simms’ attempt only reached the 5-yard line, where Devon Edwards hauled it in and began a 95-yard, untouched jaunt through the middle of the field for a lightning-quick touchdown.
“We knew their returner was very dangerous,” Johnson said. “We like the ball to be kicked a little farther to the left. We just got to go down and make a tackle on a big return. If you don’t do that against a good team, they’ll utilize their explosive players.”
While those were the most notable moments of futility, they weren’t the only area Tulane failed to help itself in special teams.
A defensive stand was overturned after Tulane jumped offside on the ensuing punt attempt (one of two Green Wave penalties on the play), gifting Duke an automatic first down, which it parlayed into a time-expiring touchdown drive, ending the first half with a 13-0 lead.
Returner Teddy Veal caught a punt inside his own 5-yard line. Five of Picerelli’s 10 punts failed to travel even 35 yards.
There were even hidden damage caused by the shaky kicking game, including Tulane’s decision to attempt a fourth down at the Duke 27, which resulted in a turnover on downs.
“We hadn’t been consistent in making those (field goals) from that distance,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to do that to that kid and the team. I thought we had a chance to make it on fourth down, but we didn’t execute like we should have. We’ll continue to go for it until we feel a little bit more comfortable with (kicker Andrew) DiRocco.
“When you get down there, you have to get points against a team like Duke. Like I said, I don’t know if we could have beat them or not. They’re a really good football team, but you want momentum and something to come off the field with.”
Against the Yellow Jackets, Johnson said he is planning to make some personnel changes on the kickoff team and insert Leglue into some of the snapping situations. But beyond that, the Green Wave will simply need to sharpen what it already has.
Otherwise, the special teams errors could sink the Green Wave’s chances for a second consecutive season.
“The one thing you have to do when you’re playing a team like this, a really good football team, is work on your own mistakes,” Johnson said. “If we concentrate on ourselves, and not worry about the (betting) line, and be more concerned with getting this team to work, we’ll be fine for that game.”