Tulane’s stunning win in final seconds over Houston another step in sustaining success

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NEW ORLEANS – Sustainability.

That is what this Tulane football season is all about – sustaining success.

Success came last season in head coach Willie Fritz’s third season in the form of a winning record (7-6) and a bowl victory (over Louisiana-Lafayette in the AutoNation Cure Bowl).

That alone is significant. Tulane has been playing football for 126 years. It has gone to 12 bowl games and won five.

That puts the 2018 team in exclusive company. But the 2019 team is trying to put the program in uncharted territory and build toward an era – not a season – of success.

That’s what made the game against Houston on Thursday night at Yulman Stadium so significant.

Sure the game was on ESPN.

Sure there was electricity throughout the campus and specifically in the student section at the stadium.

And it was an important conference game against one of the Green Wave’s chief competitors in the American Athletic West Division.

All of that made it the biggest football game on the Uptown campus since the Green Wave ended a 25-game losing streak against LSU by whipping the Tigers 14-0 in old Tulane Stadium in 1973.

This one wound being pretty remarkable in its own right as the Green Wave overcame a 28-7 deficit to take a 31-28 lead midway through the fourth quarter, watch the Cougars tie the score with just seconds remaining, then go 71 yards in two plays to prevail 38-31.

“This game meant the world to us as a university,” quarterback Justin McMillan said.

But this was a big-picture moment as much as it was a big game.

The Green Wave had begun this season with a dominant win against Florida International, a competitive loss at SEC power Auburn and a businesslike throttling of Missouri State.

They entered Thursday’s game against having won seven of their last nine games and looking like a team capable of taking another step beyond what they did last year.

Oddsmakers obviously believed the betting public was buying into Tulane by making it a five-point favorite against a traditionally strong conference rival in the Cougars.

It looked like the oddsmakers were way off in the first half as the home team looked like countless other versions of the Green Wave that couldn’t sustain success.

On the first play of the game Houston hit a 75-yard touchdown pass. Moments later it was driving toward scoring range when Tulane forced a turnover and quickly McMillan connected with Jalen McCleskey on 38-yard tying touchdown.

But the Cougars came back with three straight touchdowns. Stephon Huderson’s 9-yard touchdown run gave Tulane a pulse and a missed field goal by Houston kept the margin at 28-14 at halftime.

The Green Wave regrouped at halftime and the first possession of the third quarter ended with McMillan throwing a 48-yard touchdown to Darnell Mooney for the only points in the period as the Tulane defense clamped down on the Cougars offense.

Less than a minute into the fourth quarter McMillan ran 15 yards for a tying touchdown and Merek Glover kicked the Green Wave into the lead with a 44-yard field goal with 6:10 left.

Houston marched to a first down at the Tulane 11, but the Green Wave forced a field goal that seemed to guarantee overtime with just 21 seconds left.

After the kickoff, the Green Wave started at their 29 with 18 seconds left. Offensive coordinator Will Hall reached into his bag of tricks for a play the team hadn’t practiced since the spring.

They lined up as though McMillan would kneel down, but instead he handed the ball off to Amare Hall, who had broken his nose earlier in the game. Hall’s 18-yard run before going out of bounds set up the dramatic game winner.

Tulane had 12 seconds and one timeout so McMillan looked for McCleskey down the middle to get into field-goal range. McCleskey made the catch and bounced off a Houston defender and sprinted into the end zone with three seconds left.

“I was fine with just the catch,” McMillan said, “but he wanted to over-achieve and go for six.”

Tulane was penalized for “unsportsmanlike conduct on the whole team” for running onto the field to celebrate.

After the kickoff, the whole Green Wave team was running to the other end zone with impunity to celebrate Tulane’s biggest comeback in more than 20 years with a raucous student section.

The attendance of 21,032 showed that the program still has a ways to go, but nonetheless it was more of a home-field advantage than the Green Wave have been accustomed to since moving back on campus five years ago.

Fritz noted after the game that he had seen his offensive players signal the crowd down of a couple of occasions so the team could hear McMillan’s signals.

“I had not experienced that here,” Fritz said.

The coach’s task is to bring about more and more experiences that are rare if not unprecedented at Tulane.

“This isn’t the same Tulane that people thought it was a couple of years ago,” McMillan said. “This program was almost gone a few years ago.”

In 2003 Tulane did a comprehensive study of whether it should drop out of NCAA Division I or eliminate athletics altogether, before deciding to remain where it was.

Now Fritz is trying to take the football program to where it hasn’t been.

The Green Wave have never won bowl games in consecutive seasons.

Ever.

They haven’t even gone to bowls in consecutive seasons since 1979-80.

More often than not, when a Tulane coach has had success in turning the program around he has immediately moved on to what he perceived to be greener pastures.

In 1970 Jim Pittman led Tulane to the Liberty Bowl and left to become head coach at TCU. In 1979 Larry Smith took Tulane to the Liberty Bowl and left for Missouri. In 1987 Mack Brown led Tulane to the Independence Bowl and left for North Carolina. In 1998 Tommy Bowden led Tulane to the Liberty Bowl and left for Clemson.

Fritz is 59 years old and he isn’t looking to leave.

“We want to be consistent winners year after year after year,” Fritz said, “and in order to do that you have to win games like this. We’ve just scratched the surface of the goals we want to accomplish here and we have a long way to go.

“Going 7-6 and winning a bowl game was not what we’re looking for. We want to continue to keep building this program and I believe you can do it here at Tulane.”

After Thursday night there should be a few more believers.

TULANE 38, HOUSTON 31 – POSTGAME NOTES (21,032 – Attendance)

TEAM NOTES

· The Green Wave’s 21-point come-from-behind win over Houston is Tulane’s largest comeback victory this century.

· Entering tonight’s game, Football Bowl Subdivision teams that had trailed by 21 points-or-more this season were 0-80 on the year (according to ESPN).

· Tulane’s primetime matchup with Houston marked the first time the Green Wave have played on ESPN at Yulman Stadium.

· Tulane improved to 8-2 in its last 10 games dating back to last season.

· The Green Wave captured their fifth straight win at home. Tulane’s current five-game winning streak, which dates back to last season, is the Green Wave’s longest consecutive unbeaten streak since moving into Yulman Stadium back in 2014.

· The Green Wave improved to 3-0 at home this season. Tulane has not opened a season 3-0 at home since 1999.

· Tulane improved to 7-17 all-time against Houston.

· Tulane outscored Houston 24-3 in the second half.

· The Green Wave captured their fifth win in six years in American Athletic Conference home openers.

· Team captains for today’s game were RB Jalen McCleskey, LB Malik Lawal, OL Corey Dublin and DL Mike Hinton

· Redshirt junior DT De’Andre Williams carried the New Orleans flag. Redshirt junior QB Keon Howard carried the American Athletic Conference Power 6 flag.

· Sophomore DB Larry Brooks carried the No. 18 flag in honor of Devon Walker.

· With the win, head coach Willie Fritz improved to 212-96-1 all-time.

OFFENSIVE NOTES

· The Green Wave offensive starters were QB Justin McMillan, RB Amare Jones, RB Stephon Huderson, TE Will Wallace, WR Darnell Mooney, WR Jalen McCleskey, OL Ben Knutson, OL Keyshawn McLeod, OL Corey Dublin, OL Christian Montano and OL Joey Claybrook.

· Mooney made his 32nd consecutive start, while Dublin made his 29th straight start.

· Tulane has now outscored its opponents by a 138-51 count in home games this season.

· The Green Wave’s 10 play, 93-yard drive which spanned 4:19 in the second half was Tulane’s longest drive of the season in terms of yards.

· McCleskey finished the night with a season high 120 yards receiving and two touchdowns.

· McCleskey’s first quarter score was his 18th career touchdown of his collegiate career and his first in a Green Wave uniform. He 38-yard touchdown reception was his longest of the year.

· McCleskey’s 19th career touchdown was the game-winning score, as he dashed in from 53 yards out.

· Senior running back Darius Bradwell rushed for a season high 113 yards on just 20 carries.

· Huderson scored his first touchdown of the 2019 season with the nine-yard rush with 10:11 left in the second quarter. This was his second touchdown of his career.

· McMillan improved to 8-2 as a starter. He is a perfect 4-0 at home as a starter.

· McMillan finished the night by passing for 186 yards and rushing for a career-high 91 on 15 carries.

· Mooney extended his consecutive catch streak to 23 games. His lone catch of the night went for a 48-yard touchdown reception.

· Mooney now has 16 career touchdown receptions which ranks 10th all-time in program history.

· Tulane failed to score on its opening drive for the first time all season.

· The Green Wave have now surpassed 100 yards rushing in 44 straight games. Tulane finished the game with 325 yards rushing.

DEFENSIVE NOTES

· The Green Wave defensive starters were DL Patrick Johnson, LB Marvin Moody, CB Jaylon Monroe, DL De’Andre Williams, DL Cameron Sample, S P.J. Hall, LB Lawrence Graham, FS Chase Kuerschen, S Will Harper, NT Jeffery Johnson and CB Thakarius Keyes.

· Tulane’s defensive unit held Houston to just three second half points and held the Cougars to just 160 yards in the final 30 minutes.

· The Green Wave allowed 14 first quarter points which marked the first time all season a Tulane opponent has scored in the opening 15 minutes of the game.

· Patrick Johnson closed the night with a pair of tackles for loss and one sack. Johnson now has at least 0.5 sacks in 11 of his last 14 games dating back to last year.

· Monroe registered his first career interception in the first quarter.

SPECIAL TEAMS NOTES

· Ryan Wright’s 61-yard punt in the first quarter was his season-long.

· Wright finished the game with 208 punting yards (41.6).

· Senior kicker Merek Glover tied a career high, as he drilled a career-long 44-yard field goal.

TULANE FOOTBALL POSTGAME QUOTES

Head Coach Willie Fritz
Opening Statement:
“It was an easy one, never in doubt. No, I did not think we played great in the first half. We shot ourselves in the foot a few times and got ourselves in a few bad downs and distances. I was just really proud of the effort throughout the ball game, offensively, defensively, made a few plays in the kicking game as well. It was a total team effort. Great play calls down there at the stretch.  We thought they might squib it. We had a little time. Great play call by coach [Will] Hall on the fumblerooski. We were trying to get the ball to the middle of the field so we could run it up and kick a field goal and Jalen [McCleskey] just made the guy miss and scored the touchdown.”

On practicing the fumblerooski:
“We have been practicing that since the spring.”

On the final touchdown:
“I was trying to get the referee to call a timeout.  Luckily, we had one more timeout so we could throw the ball any place on the field. I was just getting ready to call timeout and then he just got away a little bit and I thought shoot he is going to score. He has tremendous speed.  A big, big play for him. We have been trying to get him loose here for the first few weeks. I think we got him loose today.”

On halftime locker talk:

“Just keep fighting. That first offensive play for Houston, they did a great job with execution where it looked like they were running a quarterback sweep. He tucked the ball and we had a couple of guys who had their eyes up in the back field instead of hard-focused on the receiver. They jumped the quarterback and it was an easy throw for a touchdown. Was not a great way to start the game.”

On sustaining success:

“I think it should give our kids some confidence that we are never out of the ball game. I feel like we have an offense that can come back and score some points. There are a lot of teachable moments. We were really giving a lot of tempo. They were having a tough time and that’s when we really have to lock in and go for the throat. A couple times we jumped two plays in a row, I think. The best thing about it was it gave us the opportunity to get out of a hole where we had the ball on the three, maybe the seven, and got the ball past midfield.  At least we were in a position of strength. It allowed our defense to be able to give up a few first downs and still have them not score. That was good in field position terms, but boy if we would have scored on those it would have got the game over a lot quicker.”

Graduate QB Justin McMillan
On the game winning touchdown…
“In the beginning of the game, I wasn’t at my best. My offense, they told me at halftime, ‘We got you. You’ve got to trust us. Believe in the system. Take pride in what we do. Take pride in the offense. Let’s go get a win.’ At the last couple of seconds, you’re naturally thinking you’ll take a knee and go into the overtime, but then Coach Hall, like I said earlier he’s a Mississippian, he can play backyard football with you and he can throw it around with the best of them so he had a play dialed up for us. We had that in my back pocket and we used it. Amare [Jones] got us about halfway to manageable. Naturally, we just wanted to get in field goal range. A catch would have been fine with me. I was fine with just a catch, but [Jalen McCleskey] just wanted to be an overachiever and take it to six. Fine by me. I’ll let him go with it.”

On the momentum switch at halftime…
“I would say it was more of a team effort. Coach Fritz, as a head coach you’re going to tell your team to stay in it. I don’t remember what the score was, but it wasn’t marginal. We were losing at that point. In a game like that, against Houston, a great offense, a high-scoring offense and a pretty good player at quarterback, that alone is tough handling him, but our defense did great. As an offense, we just stood strong with each other. As a team, we stood strong with each other. We just had to finish.”

On the first touchdown pass…
“The first touchdown, at first I did a kind of double take and seen that [Jalen McCleskey] was doubled, but he ran right by them. I have the respect for him to give him a chance. So, originally, I wasn’t looking at it. I saw a safety there, but the safety was kind of flat-footed and he took off right by him so I just had to give him a halfway catchable ball and he made the rest happen.”

On his connection with Jalen McCleskey
“It’s been a journey for me and Jalen [McCleskey] both. I was one of the first guys he talked to when he got here. I knew him a little bit ahead of time. Jalen [McCleskey] probably didn’t know anyone on the team. Just the fact that we’ve been working together and we have classes together, its finally coming along. It’s coming around. I know people have been waiting for the connection with me and Jalen [McCleskey] to get clicking, and I put that upon myself to get it going and get the ball to him. He made some plays for me today and I can’t be mad at all.”

On the significance of the win…
“I’m from Dallas, Texas. I’ve been playing Houston teams all my life. I don’t like losing to Houston, so this game was pretty big for me. For this city, for Tulane, for Yulman, the stadium itself, this game means the world to us as a university. Not just for the fact that its Houston, but just a tight-game win, a tight-game win on ESPN on Thursday night. The stage was set for us to make plays. You’ve got a player like D’Eriq King and it can go either way.  He can take a game over by himself with just one play, one throw. Our defense did what they did. This game meant the world to us.”

Graduate WR Jalen McCleskey
On the game winning touchdown…
“Justin [McMillan] put it on the money. It was right there in the middle of my chest and I knew I was going to get hit, so I just had to hold on to the ball, and then they missed the tackle and I had open field. It was just off to the races.”

On the first touchdown pass…
“The corner played low so I knew I could go past him. And Justin [McMillan] has thrown that ball to me in practice a number of times so I knew that had a chance to come to me. I looked back and saw him cocked back to throw and I was like I just got to come up with the catch.”

On the significance of the win…
“I just like how we went out there and fought. We had a deficit in the first half. We went into the locker room. We were like we just got to stop the penalties, stop killing ourselves. We knew we could drop the ball on offense, and we trusted our defense the whole way. We knew they were going to get stops so it was just coming together as a team to keep fighting. Until the clock hit triple-zero, the game’s not over.”

HOUSTON FOOTBALL POSTGAME QUOTES
Houston Head Coach Dana Holgorsen
On the loss…
“Well, looking at the stats we were better than them in every statistical category except for the score. I’ve never seen an ending like that, I’ve been coaching for 25 years. I thought the last drive offensively… You can talk about struggles all you want to, we had 533 yards, we snapped the ball a lot, our third down percentage was 50 percent which was really good. Our punting was really good. You can say we played bad, that’s fine. You can say I coached bad, that’s fine. You can say I didn’t have any halftime adjustments, that’s fine. You can say I didn’t have them ready to go, that’s fine too. I don’t care. It comes down to the end where we had a chance to score and win and didn’t. Then it’s just completely unacceptable on every single level to let them go 70 yards in 14 seconds. I don’t know what to say. I’ve got to do a better job of getting our guys ready. I will assume the responsibility of not doing enough to finish this game.”

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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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