Tulane’s bowl berth a tangible proof of progress
Win or lose Saturday, Tulane football coach Willie Fritz believed his program was on the uptick in his third season.
He also recognized the significance of perception for recruits as the Green Wave tries to back up its highest rated signing class since Katrina with another strong haul this year.
It would have been much harder to argue progress if the Wave had finished 5-7 for the second consecutive year. Tulane’s dramatic 29-28 victory against Navy provided tangible proof in the form of a bowl trip, the program’s first since 2013.
“It helps us a bunch,” Fritz said. “We’ve got so much to sell here with the education here at Tulane, playing in this great league and the facilities we have and doing it all in NOLA, but kids want to win. They want to see that there’s an opportunity to win here. There’s no reason why you can’t win big here. I’ve been saying that since day 1. It’s taken longer than I wanted it to, but we’re heading in the right direction.”
The early consensus is a matchup with Florida International in the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Bowl on Dec. 18 in Boca Raton, Florida, but that is speculation at this point with no clear decision until after the American Athletic Conference championship game next Saturday.
Tulane (6-6, 5-3 AAC) came close to representing the West division in that championship game, finishing in a three-way tie with Memphis and Houston at the top. Although the three teams were 1-1 against each other (Tulane beat Memphis, Memphis beat Houston, Houston beat Tulane) and 3-2 against the West, the Tigers earned a date with undefeated Central Florida next Saturday in Orlando, Florida because they beat fourth-place SMU while the Wave and Cougars lost to the Mustangs.
Tulane would have been the outright division champion if it had held on to a nine-point fourth quarter lead at home against SMU on Oct. 20 and finished the rest of the season the same way.
“It looks like we’ve gone from four wins to five wins to six wins, but we’ve really gone from one conference win to three conference wins to five conference wins,” Fritz said. “The team that’s going to represent our side is Memphis and we had a pretty good game against them (leading 40-10 in the fourth quarter and winning 40-24). We can do some good things here at Tulane. We just have to keep building on this.”
The Wave beat Navy with a blend of the old and the new.
Quarterback Justin McMillan, the most recent member of the team after transferring from LSU in late August, threw the winning 2-point conversion to fifth-year senior Charles Jones, who scored Tulane’s first-ever AAC touchdown in 2014 against Tulsa.
After rolling left, McMillan threw blindly across the field just before he was hit, trusting that Jones would get where he was supposed to be on a delay route.
“I didn’t see him at all,” McMillan said. “I knew the vicinity he would be at, and I was like, OK, he should be somewhere over there, and I just knew he would handle the rest.”
Until that play, Jones had nine catches for 38 yards on the year and had scored zero points since Fritz arrived in 2016.
“I don’t want to say we (McMillan and Jones) just met, but we really just met,” said Jones, laughing. “Our lockers are next to each other and we have a bond. It’s a friendship, communication and a trust thing. That’s what it’s all about—trusting.”
Tulane had run the 2-point play enough times in practice that Jones was confident at the snap.
“A saying we like to follow is proper preparation prevents (expletive deleted)-poor performance,” he said. “When you are prepared, there is no such thing as pressure. We just went out there and executed against a really disciplined, well coached Navy team.”
Borrowing from the Saints playbook against the Falcons two days earlier, McMillan spread the ball around to lesser known receivers.
Jabril Clewis’s 52-yard catch and run for a touchdown with 1:00 left in the second quarter was the first of his career.
Jaetavian Toles followed suit with his first career score on a 26-yard catch and run right before the 2-point conversion.
With star wideouts Darnell Mooney and Terren Encalade battling injuries, Tulane needed contributions from the supporting cast.
“I was happy to see it because those guys work extremely hard,” Fritz said. “They have gotten a ton of reps in practice, and they got a chance to make the plays themselves rather than in practice.”