For the first time since 2014 the Cincinnati Bearcats will face the Tulane Green Wave in a football joust on Saturday. With so many years between matchups, this Tulane team is an entirely unknown commodity. If only we had an expert we could ask about the Green Wave.
Oh wait. We do.
JP Gooderham of Fear The Wave is a good dude (pun!) and also a fountain of knowledge about Tulane athletics. I asked him some questions about the football team. Here’s what he had to say.
Down the Drive: Tulane has already nearly reached its win total from 2016. What has improved this year?
JP Gooderham (Fear The Wave): This one is easy. The offense has gone from one of the worst in CFB (over the last three years, pre-dating Coach Fritz joining the program for 2016) to a reasonably competent one. They've even teetered on the edge of looking really good, like putting up the most points in a game since 1998 in a divisional bout with Tulsa.
All the pieces aren't there yet, and the passing game has been hit or miss (with some recent misses) but the team is certainly running the ball more effectively this year.
DTD: Obviously the upward trajectory means Willie Fritz is doing something right. How would you grade his first year and a half at the helm?
JP: The official stance of FTW is that we are big Fritz believers. If I had to do a letter grade, I would probably say B+. The energy, culture, and focus of this program has demonstrably improved. The knock right now is that Tulane is now in a position to compete in games; that hasn't translated into consistently pulling it off (i.e. dropping a game to a probably underrated but still beatable Florida International) or breaking through some of Tulane's greatest boogeymen (like a winless streak against ranked opponents going back to 1984).
I think it's easy to point to things that have tangibly improved -- the next step is turning that into tangible wins, and that is squarely the mission in these next four games for Coach Fritz and his staff.
DTD: How do you stop Dontrell Hilliard?
JP: Man, I'm a big Hilliard fan. He's just one of those running backs who can do just about everything. I will add our other senior Sherman Badie into this conversation. What I felt like both FIU and Memphis did really well: discipline on defense and tackling well, especially in the second level.
Both of those running backs were good for at least one explosive run, usually for a touchdown in most of Tulane's other games this year. If you can keep those backs contained, Tulane has not shown an ability to threaten with the deep ball, and that greatly reduces the ability of the Wave offense to create explosive opportunities.
The other element is to get pressure to our quarterback Jonathan Banks, obviously. That is a given with a run-oriented offense. If you can stack the box, you are going to have a lot more success achieving what I suggested above. The offensive line can be vulnerable, and without time to make throws, Banks can be limited as a passer.
DTD: Tulane is now a run first team but can they still be dangerous through the air? Why or why not?
JP: They can but the more important thing is being consistent through the air. I will point out Terren Encalade, who has been outstanding this year. He's a guy who can break an arm tackle and turn a 20 yard gain into a 55 yard touchdown, and he likes to do that.
The key thing with Fritz's shotgun option is that the passing game is there to keep defenses honest and open up the run game.
DTD: Third down has been a real issue for the Green Wave. Why is that?
JP: Tulane is reasonably solid in short yardage situations (#87) but struggles big time when it comes to passing downs (#127, right around the bottom of College Football). This definitely relates to the situation above.
The passing game hasn't been able to produce successfully on that 3rd and 6 or 3rd and 8 situation. When they can get in striking distance, the running game definitely has the tools to move the chains, and we certainly have seen that (a final drive against a bowl eligible Army team to win the game comes to mind).
I think an element of that has been conservative play calling early in a series, and that can certainly put the Wave behind in the chains.
DTD: Will Tulane make a bowl game this year?
JP: The numbers guys have it at about 45/55, which is unfortunate because the chances looked pretty good before being upset as a double digit favorite against FIU. I still lean on the good side -- I think if they can get to 5-5 with wins over struggling Cincy and ECU, the momentum can probably get them some luck against Houston or @ SMU to end the season (both quality teams, for sure, but also ones that have shown vulnerability too).
But coach speak: GO 1-0 EVERY WEEK, FOLKS.
DTD: What is your prediction for this game?
JP: I do think Tulane breaks a horrific streak in Homecoming games. We've lost 'em all since 2013 (coincidentally the last time the Green Wave went bowling, maybe some good vibes there if they pull it off). I'd go 35-24 Tulane.
I think Cincy comes out scrappy with a good plan early and Khalil finds some success against a Wave secondary that has struggled lately, but the defense tightens up and the Wave benefits from a +2 turnover margin in this one.
DTD: BONUS QUESTION: What was the best Halloween costume you saw this year? Can be in person, on the internet, just give me the best.
Been watching a lot of Stranger Things like everyone else, I guess. Saw someone with a full Demogorgon (it's a monster on the show, no spoilers) with a head thing that opened up. Very spooky.
I won't forget the last time these two teams met -- Halloween night in 2014, which for those who don't know, is a very big deal in New Orleans. Not only did we get a pretty empty stadium on a cold night while a backup Cincy QB tore the Wave apart, but we got to nationally televise some of the saddest looking costumes you'll ever see.
So only one way to go for us, and that's up...