A four-hour, three-overtime marathon Saturday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome produced enough storylines to fill a massive binder, not the least of which is Tulane heads into a bye week at 5-2 overall and 3-0 in Conference USA.
So where to begin on Tulane 36, East Carolina 33? How about defense. Not since the days of the late Larry Smith has Tulane won with defense.
Staying on the field for 90 plays and allowing 33 points and 543 total yards, including 480 passing, doesn’t sound like the types of numbers that good defenses allow. But Curtis Johnson’s defense rose to the occasion with a bend-but-not-break approach.
Six times in regulation, East Carolina reached the red zone, but the Pirates found the end zone only once – on a 2-yard run by Vintavious Cooper with 1:48 remaining.
The other trips resulted in four field goals and perhaps the game’s biggest play, a 99-yard interception return by Derrick Strozier late in the third quarter that gave the Green Wave a 16-6 lead. Strozier’s TD marked the third consecutive week the defense has scored.
In those last three games, Tulane has four scores off returns - two interceptions, a fumble and a blocked field goal.
Tulane’s special teams won the day as well, most notably reigning Lou Groza Award winner Cairo Santos, whose 42-yard field goal in the third OT was his second game-winner in the last eight days.
Santos tied a school record with five field goals. Meanwhile, his counterpart, East Carolina’s Warren Harvey, went 4-for-7 but missed two critical kicks, from 42 yards out on the final play of regulation and from 34 on the first possession of the third overtime.
The final miss put Johnson in decision-making mode: When to send Santos out to try the game-winner?
“Without a doubt,” Johnson said, “I set up for the field goal on the first play, because when you have the best kicker in the nation, that’s what you do. I don’t want to run a play, I don’t want to do anything but make the kick.”
On offense, Tulane played without starting quarterback Nick Montana, who missed practice all week with a shoulder injury. Making his second career start, Devin Powell threw a red-zone interception off a tipped ball and had a couple of other mistakes, but for the most part, he managed the game well.
And in overtime, Powell found Ryan Grant.
Grant, who was shut out in the first half, caught touchdown passes from Powell in each of the first two overtimes and finished with six receptions for 90 yards.
Powell finished 23 of 39 for 224 yards.
Now, Tulane gets a bye week before playing host to Tulsa on Oct. 26. Now this isn’t the NFL and there’s no collective bargaining agreement between the players and Johnson, but the Green Wave’s schedule this week will more resemble the Saints than other college teams.
“I told them that if they won the game they would get the week off,” Johnson said, “and all of a sudden, we won. I have to stick to my word; I’m a man of my word.”
So back to the top, and the 5-2 mark at the first of two open weeks on the schedule. One win in its final five games, and the Green Wave is bowl eligible for the first time in 11 years. (For what it’s worth, the next four games are against teams with records of 2-4, 2-5, 2-5 and 1-5.)
But clearly, the standard is already higher. Tulane and Rice are tied for first place in Conference USA’s West Division at 3-0.
And guess what the schedule reads for the last Saturday of the regular season, Nov. 30? You got it – Tulane at Rice.
When you’re Tulane, it’s far too early to start talking about conference title possibilities. Another win or two, though, and those discussions can begin.
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