Cure Bowl

Tulane coach Willie Fritz celebrates after his Green Wave defeated UL-Lafayette 41-24 in the Cure Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Dec. 15.

At a place where it has been hard to win historically, Tulane football coach Willie Fritz is refusing to stand still after a 7-6 record.

As he pointed out in a post-2018 question-and-answer session on Monday, the Green Wave’s 41-24 Cure Bowl victory against Louisiana-Lafayette gave the program only its sixth winning season in the past 37 years and fifth bowl win in 125 years.

“We certainly haven’t done enough to rest on our laurels in any way, shape or form,” he said. “We have to keep improving to go down the path we want to go down.”

Still, the reasons for optimism are real. Graduate transfer quarterback Justin McMillan, the top five running backs and wide receiver Darnell Mooney return along with 15 of the top 20 tacklers from a team that won five of its last six and tied for first in the American Athletic Conference West division after a 2-5 start.

At the same time, Fritz knows the offense needs to become more diversified. When spring practice starts March 12, new coordinator Will Hall will revamp the Wave’s approach.

Fritz said he would not abandon his run-first approach, but Tulane never has finished higher than eighth in the American Athletic Conference in scoring or yards in his three years. Part of the problem has been a rudimentary pass offense based almost exclusively on beating man-to-man coverage designed to stop the run.

Tulane’s highest completion percentage in the past three years was .564 in 2017. That number dipped to .503 this season.

“The offense is going to change,” Fritz said. “Not drastically, but there will be some changes in some of the run plays we do, and the passing game is going to evolve quite a bit. There are times where you have to be able to throw, and I don’t want to say a complex passing attack, but more of a passing attack where you’re going against a zone or they are giving you something different.

“In order to do that, you have to put a lot on the quarterback’s plate, and the more he can handle, the more sophisticated your passing attack can be. We have to take a step in that direction without question.”

McMillan’s return will play a huge role. He went 4-1 as a starter when he supplanted departing senior Jonathan Banks, and despite producing pedestrian overall numbers (completing 51.3 percent of his passes for 1,304 yards), he invigorated the offense, passing for 10 scores and running for five.

Learning on the fly after transferring from LSU near the end of August, he ended the season in sky-high fashion.

After leading Tulane’s dramatic late-fourth-quarter drive and two-point conversion against Navy to become bowl eligible, he guided the Wave to three touchdowns and a field goal on its first four series of the Cure Bowl. When UL-Lafayette pulled within 27-24 in the fourth quarter, he produced back-to-back touchdowns to seal the victory.

That performance gives him the clear edge on Southern Mississippi transfer Keon Howard, who operated the scout-team offense this season while sitting out under NCAA rules. Redshirt sophomore Dane Ledford and redshirt freshman Christian Daniels, whom Fritz said would move back to QB after shifting to receiver early last fall, will supply depth.

“It’s good to have options, especially at that position,” Fritz said. “But Justin really played well down the stretch for us.”

Any improvement in the passing game would be significant. Tulane’s pass offense topped out at 103rd nationally this fall after finishing 116th in 2017 and 126th in 2016.

“We need to be able to throw on obvious passing downs,” Fritz said. “I want to be able to get more tempo. That helps you in 2-minute (drills) and helps you changing up. The teams that give you trouble are the ones that can go real fast for a period of time and also slow it down.”

Opponents have slowed down Tulane too often, and Fritz admitted they may have solved his old system.

“There’s always this race whether either offensive or defensively, someone’s doing something and then that other side of the ball catches up, and you have to change a little bit more,” he said. “What we were doing a few years ago, you see more teams doing it now and having a clue on how to defend it. When you do something a little bit different, that first year you run it, it’s amazing how little knowledge they have of how to defend it.”

Coaching vacancy

Fritz said he would take his time replacing offensive line coach Alex Atkins, who took the offensive coordinator job at Charlotte earlier this month, adding that Hall would have plenty of input.

“I want him (Hall) to be comfortable with who I hire,” Fritz said. “It’s a very important position for us to hire.”

Atkins was Tulane’s interim offensive coordinator for the Cure Bowl, calling plays for the first time in his career. He and new Charlotte coach Will Healy, who was at Austin Peay this past season, are best friends who were in each other’s weddings.

“I knew when he (Healy) got the job, it was going to be tough for me to keep (Atkins),” Fritz said. “Alex certainly did a great job for us.”

Follow Guerry Smith on Twitter, @guersmith