Tulane finishes flipping the script with win at Cincinnati
CINCINNATI – Tulane has quite literally flipped the script this season, reversing a 2-10 season in 2021 to 10-2 this season, and the Green Wave is now preparing to host its first American Athletic Conference football championship game after a 27-24 victory over Cincinnati Friday.
It wasn’t an easy task, as this was the closely contested matchup so many thought it could be. Much of Tulane’s success comes down to its true 1-0 mentality and the steady mindset it has maintained throughout 2022.
“We’ve got a lot of veteran guys,” head coach Willie Fritz said. “I really think (strength and conditioning coach) Kurt Hester has done an excellent job instilling that.
“Our expectations are very high and the guys adhere to our expectations. You can (try to) do everything you want but you’ve got to have the Jimmys and the Joes and we’ve got some tough Jimmys and Joes.”
It’s safe to say that all carried over into Friday.
Bearcats starting quarterback Ben Bryant was out with an injury as Evan Prater made the first start of his career. Prater struggled throwing the football but did have some explosive plays on the ground that made a difference for the Bearcats. He rushed for 83 yards but was 10-of-26 for 102 yards passing.
“We pretty much knew (Prater) was going to play,” linebacker Dorian Williams said. “He did a good job of making guys miss in the open field. We knew the passing plays were probably going to be cut down a bit with him getting his first start and all but he did a great job back there.”
Both the Green Wave and the Bearcats did most of their work on the ground in the first two quarters as Tulane posted 186 yards of total offense (118 rushing) to Cincinnati’s 182 yards total offensive yards (130 rushing).
The two teams traded punts for the first 10 minutes of the game before Tulane was able to drive down and put a 34-yard field goal from Valentino Ambrosio on the board. Cincinnati responded as it made its way deep into Green Wave territory but was held to a 28-yard field goal from Ryan Coe to tie things up at 3-3.
The Cincinnati defense was as aggressive as advertised and made things difficult in the passing game at several points, but Tulane was able to put the first touchdown of the game on the board with an 11-yard run from standout running back Tyjae Spears in the second quarter.
Tulane forced Cincinnati into a third-down situation backed up in its own territory, but an 18-yard run from Prater busted things open and allowed the Bearcats to respond with a 35-yard rushing touchdown to the left by running back Charles McClelland.
The Green Wave looked to get back to the end zone through the air in the final minutes of the second quarter as quarterback Michael Pratt found Lawrence Keys for what was first ruled a 58-yard touchdown, but it was ruled that Keys’ knee did indeed touch the ground at the Cincinnati 29-yard line as Tulane ultimately settled for a 47-yard Ambrosio field goal to retake the lead just ahead of halftime.
The two teams traded rushing touchdowns in the third quarter by Spears and Cincinnati running back Ryan Montgomery.
Tulane held the 20-17 lead until Montgomery made it to the end zone yet again on a 15-yard touchdown rush midway through the fourth quarter, giving the Bearcats their first lead.
It was short-lived.
Two consecutive 30-plus-yard passes by Pratt, the last of which was a 30-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Deuce Watts, allowed Tulane to retake lead.
That was ultimately all that was needed as the Green Wave ended any last hopes Cincinnati may have had in the final minute as Prater’s fourth-and-15 pass fell incomplete.
While things were kept close, Spears says there was never a doubt and all of the confidence in the world that the team would come out with the win.
“The mindset you’ve got to have is that there’s a big play coming,” Spears said. “Because, guess what? If you take an axe and keep on hitting the tree, keep on hitting the tree, keep on chopping at it then one day it’s going to fall. That was the objective of this game. It’s eventually going to fall, we’ve just got to keep on doing what we’re doing.”
Here’s a look at three players who shined in the victory:
RB Tyjae Spears
Spears was a bit banged up in the last game, but that has not mattered a bit. Spears continues to be a player this team can lean into, accounting for the team’s only touchdown in the first half and entering the locker room after two quarters with 103 rushing yards on 18 carries. He finished the game with some 35 carries for a season-high 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
It marked the sixth consecutive game in which Spears has rushed for at least 120 yards – the longest such active streak in the country – and put the Ponchatoula native over the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
Despite the huge amount of success he’s had, Spears continues to credit the offensive line and those around him equally for the storybook season Tulane has had, and Fritz has said repeatedly that it’s the intangibles he brings to the table that are just as important as the product he puts out on the field.
And it’s his focus and perspective that have not only brought him to this level, but have won everyone around him over.
“It’s an amazing feeling (to achieve this),” Spears said. “But I’ve been counted out my whole life. They said I wasn’t going to make it this far… it was just another task at hand. But I don’t work to prove people wrong. I work to produce results for myself because I’m trying to better my situation.”
K Valentino Ambrosio
There’s plenty of talk of offense and defense when it comes to any matchup, but it truly does take all three phases and a solid performance on special teams especially comes into play in games as close as this one was.
His 47-yard attempt that gave Tulane the halftime lead at 13-10 marked the second-longest of the Willie Fritz era.
It made all the difference in the world considering just how close this game ended up being and Fritz said he was pleased with his special teams effort all around – Ambrosio, the punt returners and everyone else included.
“It was big,” Fritz said after the game. “Huge field goal for us and we were kind of in no man’s land right there… I thought all the special teams coaches did an excellent job.”
LB Dorian Williams
For the first time in nearly two decades, two Tulane players have been invited to the Reese’s Senior Bowl in the same season, and both Spears and Williams send a reminder as to why that is game in and game out.
There wasn’t much of a sense of momentum on either side through the first two quarters, but Williams changed that with an interception off of Prater that was broken up by Devean Deal at the Cincinnati 40-yard line to set up a drive that Tulane capitalized on with the touchdown by Spears.
Williams, who has finished near the top of the stat sheet for most of the season, did so once again with 12 total tackles (4 solo) and the game-changing interception.
- < PREV Video: Fritz, Spears, Williams on Tulane's win over Cincinnati
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Crissy Froyd is a sports reporter of roughly nine years who graduated from LSU and has spent time at USA TODAY SMG, NBC Sports and the Fan Nation network on Sports Illustrated. She specializes in quarterback analysis and covers the SEC and college football across the state of Louisiana in addition to working with several college quarterbacks across the nation.