Opportunity knocks for Tulane as underdog at Navy

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Tulane vs. Grambling 2017
Tulane QB Jonathan Banks (#1) and his teammates face a big early season conference test Saturday afternoon at Navy (Photo: Parker Waters)

NEW ORLEANS — The second year of the Willie Fritz era at Tulane got off to a good start with a 43-14 victory against Grambling last Saturday.

The Green Wave was balanced on offense, exceptional on defense and mostly solid on special teams.

Now whether Tulane is appreciably better than it was as a 4-8 team last season will be easier to gauge after this week’s game. The Green Wave goes on the road for the first time and faces one of the best teams in the American Athletic Conference, Navy, in the league opener.

A victory in this game would open eyes throughout the conference.

“It’s an opportunity to go out and show the rest of the conference that we’re coming this year,” wide receiver Terren Encalade said.

As for Fritz, he had more of a big-picture perspective when asked if a victory this week would be the proverbial “statement win.”

“I think every win we get now is a statement win for us,” Fritz replied. “We’ve got to get this thing turned around.

“I approach every game like it’s the Super Bowl. It is because we’re playing in the game.”

That doesn’t mean that Fitz doesn’t recognize the opportunity that this particular game presents to the Green Wave

“Coach always talks about that one game that changes a program,” Encalade said. “We feel like Navy might be that game. First conference game, Navy, a great opponent. I feel like we’re on the verge of changing the program.”

Even a win against Navy wouldn’t mean Fritz has turned the program around. He acknowledged that “our margin for error is very slim.”

In most of its conference games, Tulane will have to play closer to its absolute best than its opponent will have to play to its absolute best in order for the Green Wave to prevail. That’s especially true against the Midshipmen, who advanced to The American title game before losing to Houston last season.

“Ever since Navy came into The American they’ve dominated,” safety Roderic Teamer Jr. said. “They’ve been beating us. We thought we had them last year and they snuck up on us at the end.”

In Fritz’s American debut, Tulane was clinging to a 14-13 lead when Andrew DiRocco missed a 45-yard field goal that could have increased the lead midway through the fourth quarter. Navy then drove to a touchdown and two-point conversion with 2:57 left, producing a 21-14 victory.

“It’s hard to beat these guys scoring one or two touchdowns,” Fritz said.

The Green Wave brought in junior-college quarterback Jonathan Banks in order to score more touchdowns than it did last season.

“We’re starting to evolve our passing attack, which we need to do,” Fritz said.

Banks and the offense looked much improved against Grambling.

But, again, this week’s game will mean more.

“It doesn’t matter when the opponents are easy,” Banks said. “It’s about how you step up when it’s a high-level opponent.”

We’ll find out how well this team can do that on Saturday.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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