Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks and a reality TV star may garner the headlines from Thursday’s Conference USA clash between Louisiana Tech and Tulane. And rightfully so, given the largely sloppy play for much of the night. But the more interesting story may be the turnaround of Tulane football under head coach Curtis Johnson.
Tech honored Terry Bradshaw and his quarterback predecessor, Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson before kickoff. Bradshaw’s storied football career is well documented. Robertson, through the popularity of Duck Dynasty, is now celebrated for his time captaining the Bulldog offense in the 1960s.
Skip Holtz may have wanted to check if either had eligibility remaining, because Bulldog quarterback Scotty Young and Ryan Higgins were a combined 16-of-44 for 165 yards. To shed some light on just how drastic a departure this Tech bunch is from Sonny Dykes’ teams, the Bulldogs’ 165 passing yards is not even half the 2012 team’s per game average.
The Tech quarterbacks’ struggles weren’t entirely the result of inexperience and a new offensive scheme. Cornerback Lorenzo Doss, answer to the trivia question “who was the first player ejected under the targeting rule,” made his second interception of the year. Doss could make life difficult for others C-USA quarterbacks. He intercepted five passes a season ago.
Conversely, Tulane quarterback Nick Montana shook off a sluggish first half to lead three Green Wave scoring drives in the second half. His two-touchdown effort, along with a rushing score from outstanding running back Orleans Darkwa, was enough to give Tulane its first road win since Sept. 17, 2011, when it beat UAB at Legion Field.
Tulane has also matched its 2012 win total, and stands atop C-USA West a 1-0.
There’s plenty to like about this Tulane bunch. The aforementioned Darkwa rushed for over 900 yards in each of his first two seasons. He missed much of 2012 with an ankle injury, but his return gives a nice balance to Tulane’s pass-heavy attack. Darkwa has five touchdowns through three games.
Central to that passing game is wide receiver Ryan Grant, a gem sure to rocket up NFL draft boards over the next several months. Coming off a career-high 14-reception game in Week 2, Grant hauled in his third touchdown of 2013 in the first half against Louisiana Tech.
His 79 yards Thursday put him at 348 on the year. Coming off a campaign in which he caught for 1149 yards, Grant is on pace for more. So far, Montana has shown glimpses suggesting he can help make it happen.
Montana and Grant have a natural chemistry, and Montana is gradually settling in playing for the NFL-tenured Johnson. Tonight’s 235-yard, two-touchdown performance could be a turning point for Montana, as the junior transfer overcame the aforementioned shaky start.
Once the offense finds its rhythm, Tulane will be one of the more difficult C-USA teams to stop, and among the more exciting to watch. The program’s first bowl game in a decade is a very realistic possibility, but Johnson must lead this group over the hump that years of losing has put before it.
The Green Wave suffered a Week 2 loss that is all-too indicative of the program’s struggles in the last decade, giving up 31 first half points to South Alabama. Tulane’s rally effort fell short in one of those games a team barely out of the bowl conversation come December can look back on with regret.
Instead of heading into the next two on its current three-game road swing halfway to bowl eligibility, the Green Wave is 2-1. All things considered, though, that’s likely where Tulane was tabbed before the season by such experts as Phil Steele, who has Johnson’s team bowling.
Tulane’s next two are at Syracuse and La.-Monroe, both postseason participants a year ago. The Green Wave then comes home for three straight, including two against C-USA power brokers Tulsa and East Carolina.
This five-game stretch makes or breaks the Green Wave. Beat North Texas at home and steal any one of the four against Syracuse, ULM, Tulsa and ECU, and Tulane needs just two more to reach six. Very winnable contests against UTEP, UTSA and FAU remain.