Without better passing, Tulane’s dream of upsetting South Florida will be nothing more than a passing fancy.
That is the reality after the Green Wave came up empty in the air while losing at Florida international 23-10 last Saturday. Everything that could go wrong did, leaving quarterback Jonathan Banks with a grand total of 9 passing yards until late in the fourth quarter.
“It was a team-wide effort,” offensive coordinator Doug Ruse said. “We struggled in protection at times. We struggled to get open at times, and we struggled to hit the spot with the ball at times. We had seven or eight times in that game where we were off by six inches that were potentially big plays that may change the outcome.”
Tulane (3-3, 1-1 American Athletic Conference) is a ground-oriented team under coach Willie Fritz, but it will need some semblance of balance to run with the Bulls (6-0, 3-0), who are ranked 13th in the coaches’ poll, 16th in the Associated Press poll and have not lost since Oct. 21, 2016 — a year to the day of Saturday’s game.
South Florida is third nationally in rushing defense, allowing only 77.8 yards per game and 2.4 yards per carry. The Bulls almost certainly will load the box defensively and dare the Wave to throw against single coverage.
Unlike what happened against FIU, Tulane has to take advantage of those opportunities. Playing in front of a national television audience on ESPN2, the Wave will get a litmus test on where the program stands in Fritz’s second year.
“I expect not just the quarterback, but as a team we’ll bounce back,” Ruse said. “We’re playing a heck of an opponent. We’ll have to play our tails off, but I feel very good that we’ll do just that.”
The confidence starts with a belief in Banks. Starting with a clutch, last-minute, game-winning drive against Army on Sept. 23, he produced touchdowns on eight consecutive possessions through the end of the first half against Tulsa on Oct. 7.
In that span, he completed 11 of 20 passes for 175 yards with a touchdown and ran 16 times for 134 yards and two scores. Tulane went 5 of 5 on fourth-down conversions and 6 of 11 on third-down conversions, gaining 510 yards in 35 minutes.
His hiccup against FIU hardly is the whole story.
"He's played well for us,” Fritz said. “He's a tough-minded kid. He was very disappointed (about the way he played in Miami), and I told him he was one of many guys who didn't play well. Unfortunately, the quarterback and the head coach get too much credit when things go well and too much blame when things go wrong. I told him, 'Join the club, buddy, and I'll hang with you.'”
In three home games, Banks is 29 of 50 for 453 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions.
“I’m ready to come out here on Saturday and compete against South Florida,” he said. “A lot of people were talking about the loss, but I told them we have to put it in the past. The season is long. You can’t look at a game that was bad. We have to be hungrier this week.”
Banks will need more help from his receivers. Twice in a row on deep throws against FIU to tight end Charles Jones and once on a long pass to wide receiver Darnell Mooney, Banks laid the ball just out of reach of them on plays that could have been difference-makers.
“We had guys open and missed them, and we have to hit them,” Fritz said. “That’s not always on the quarterback. It was a team effort. You see a guy running, and the quarterback’s looking to the other side, and then all of a sudden he throws it and the guy speeds up. That’s too late to recover.”
Junior Terren Encalade, who had 15 receptions through five games, caught zero against FIU for the first time this season. No other receiver has more than six receptions for the year.
“There’s a lot of things we need to correct,” Encalade said. “Our mindset, all kinds of stuff. We just have to work harder. We are eager to play football again. Protecting our house should be the main goal of any college football team. This is our home.”
The final piece of the passing-game puzzle is protection. Ruse singled out a fourth-down play when Banks had a receiver wide open but was sacked because a lineman got beat.
No one is asking the passing game to produce 300 yards. With proper reads and blocking, Fritz believes his base running plays should work regardless of the defensive alignment.
But to match up with South Florida’s big-play offense, Tulane has to take advantage of the openings the Bulls give them downfield. Fritz is less concerned with Tulane’s No. 125 ranking out of 129 FBS teams in passing yards — a byproduct of his run-heavy approach — than with its spot at No. 95 in passing efficiency.
With the way opponents gear up to stop the run, that number should be considerably higher.
“I'm not going to call them gimmick plays, but there are plays where you hope to take advantage of their coverage,” Fritz said. “You just hope that all 11 guys are on the same page. It's all about execution.”