Image Credit: Tulane Athletics
The 2020 Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl was a blast from the past. Playing an old conference foe, Tulane was seemingly headed for a familiar result. Southern Miss Quarterback Jack Abraham engineered consecutive touchdown drives and Tulane went 3-and-out on its first two possessions, and the Golden Eagles raced out to a 13-0 first quarter lead. Southern Miss was about to hammer Tulane once again.
Not this time.
Tulane scored 30 unanswered points on three Justin McMillan touchdown passes and three Merek Glover field goals to lead the Wave to a convincing 30-13 victory. To some Cro-Magnons, winning a “meaningless bowl game” against Southern Miss may seem insignificant. For a Tulane program that has struggled to sustain success, this win was anything but meaningless. This was Tulane’s 6th bowl victory in the program’s 126-year history and marked the first time the Wave has won a bowl in consecutive years.
To top it off, the Wave exorcised some demons against a program that owned them for 30 years. It’s not often that you see a team win two trophies in one game, but Tulane did just that on Saturday. The Wave took home the Armed Forces Bowl trophy and also reclaimed “the Bell” from USM. It had lived in Hattiesburg since 2002.
Flat Waves for Smooth Sailing?
It’s unclear why Tulane comes out of the tunnel flat so often. After Jack Abraham scampered for a 3-yard touchdown with 5:23 remaining in the first quarter, Tulane adjusted on defense. The adjustments spelled the end of the scoring for the Golden Eagles. The Wave tightened up their coverage on the slant routes that torched them in that first quarter. Tulane applied pressure and forced USM into long down and distance situations. Abraham took a lot of hits from this point forward and left the game late in the second quarter due to a shoulder injury. Abraham would not return.
Tulane’s offense also came out flat. The Wave had a total of -5 yards on its first two possessions, and only 93 yards at halftime. Plagued by poor blocking and missed assignments, Tulane struggled to gain any offensive rhythm in the first half. The Wave was finally able to put a drive together on its third possession. Tulane drove down the field, but settled for a field goal after a dropped touchdown and a busted read option. The other meaningful drive of the first half also stalled near the red zone, ending in another Merek Glover field goal.
Southern Miss’ backup quarterback, Tate Whatley, struggled mightily against the aggressive Tulane defense. Whatley completed 9/22 passes for 134 yards and 2 interceptions, including a critical pick on USM’s second possession of the 3rd quarter. Under heavy pressure, Whatley scrambled to his right and threw a duck to Wave safety Larry Brooks, who returned it to the Southern Miss 5-yard line. The Wave would capitalize on the turnover to blow the game open.
The Green Wave defense continued to dominate, forcing a turnover on downs, 3 punts, and a game-ending interception by safety Chase Keurschen. After giving up 139 yards of offense on the first two drives, the Wave held the Golden Eagles to 220 yards the rest of the way and only 155 yards in the second half.
Will’s Secret Stuff
However, as badly as things went in the first half, it was still only a 13-6 deficit at halftime. I don’t know what happened in the Tulane locker room, but clearly Offensive Coordinator Will Hall has a stash of Michael Jordan’s “secret stuff” from Space Jam.
Justin McMillian threw three touchdowns to three different receivers and the Wave rolled up and down the field in the 3rd quarter, scoring 24 points. Jalen McClesky made up for his earlier drop and scored on a 52-yard touchdown reception on the first drive of the quarter. Merek Glover, added a 36 yard field goal. Jacob Robertson caught his first career touchdown on a 7-yard pass following the Larry Brooks interception. Amare Jones capped off the scoring with a 20-yard touchdown reception. Tulane would protect the 30-13 lead the rest of way behind the legs of Justin McMillan and powerful running from tailbacks Cam Carroll and Darius Bradwell. Tulane exploded for 280 yards of offense in the second half.
Waves Gaining Traction
After two McMillan runs to close out the game it was time to party in Uptown New Orleans. Most places are not going to burn the house down after consecutive 7-win seasons, but Tulane is not most places. 4 years ago, Willie Fritz inherited one of the worst FBS programs. Tulane Football was in complete disrepair. Fritz immediately started changing the mentality of the program. He recruited his butt off and hired good assistants who can both recruit develop talent.
The improvement started with baby steps in 2016 and 2017. The fruits of that labor were borne in 2018 and 2019. Tulane is now a respectable FBS program. There is still work to be done, and this is not the end of the journey. Right now, though, after the Bell is back in New Orleans, those roses smell awfully sweet.