TULSA, Okla. — For four quarters, Tanner Lee offered a glimpse into the potentially prosperous future for Tulane with him at quarterback.
But when it came to double-overtime, he could no longer match Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans.
After Evans’ fourth touchdown pass gave Tulsa its first lead of the game, Lee made the first costly decision of his Tulane career, firing a misguided pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Tulsa’s DeMarco Nelson, allowing the Golden Hurricane to steal a 38-31 victory at H.A. Chapman Stadium on Thursday. Until the second overtime, Lee played with poise and Tulane played with control of the game, leading by 14 points on multiple occasions.
Lee’s overall debut was impressive: 22-of-44 passing for 262 yards and three touchdowns. But his first career interception was a game ender, intended for Teddy Veal but right at Nelson.
“I didn’t see the guy,” Lee said. “He made a good play on the ball.”
Named the starter 17 days ago, Lee flourished in the first half, tossing a pair of touchdowns and, in one stretch, completing seven consecutive passes.
He displayed flair in the fourth quarter when he withstood an unabated blitzer up the middle and hit a wide-open Xavier Rush for a catch-and-run 60-yard touchdown to put Tulane ahead 28-20.
He walked toward the sideline and gave a right-handed fist pump. It is only the second time in the last 17 games that a Green Wave quarterback has thrown three touchdown passes.
Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said on Tuesday that he wanted Tulane to be able to run the football, which would help Lee get comfortable running the offense.
The Green Wave eventually rushed the ball successfully -- true freshman Sherman Badie ran for 215 yards -- but early it relied heavily on Lee to create a rhythm.
Lee threw 19 passes on Tulane’s first four drives, compared to nine runs. His first touchdown pass came on a play-action fake that deked most of Tulsa’s defense, allowing him to hit tight end Charles Jones over the middle for a 15-yard score.
In three plays on Tulane’s next drive, Lee displayed the tools that won him the job over two quarterbacks with more experience.
Facing a first-and-25 from the Tulsa 33-yard line, Lee began with a quick slant to freshman Terren Encalade for 6 yards. Next, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Lee showed surprising mobility, scrambling for 5 yards after shedding a would-be sacker.
Then he put his arm on display on third down, delivering a sharp, back-shoulder throw over the middle to Justyn Shackleford down to the 2-yard line.
Three plays later, his second touchdown pass put Tulane ahead by 14 and completed a 14-play, 80-yard drive.
“Today was a successful day for our offense,” Lee said. “We did some good things and we learned a lot.”
Lee’s only mistake in regulation came late in the second quarter when he coughed up the football after Tulsa’s Jeremy Smith sacked him on his blind side.
The Golden Hurricane recovered and snatched momentum two plays later on an 84-yard touchdown pass.
Lee’s most impressive moments came when he displayed a veteran’s demeanor against the blitz. Facing a seven-man rush on a third-and-4 in the third quarter, Lee calmly tossed an 8-yard pass to Shackleford for a first down.
Late in the fourth quarter, he drove Tulane to the Tulsa 4-yard line, but freshman Andrew DiRocco missed a 21-yard field goal that would have given the Green Wave the lead with 1:46 remaining.
Said Lee: “I felt like we had that game and we hurt ourselves.”