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Opponent Preview: Tulane Green Wave

Wilie Fritz is doing good things down in New Orleans. With a bunch of talent on offense and a strong special teams unit (yes, the same one that missed a game-winning field goal last year), this is going to be a challenging game to start October.

Tulane v Navy Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

One point. That was the difference between the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Tulane Green Wave last season. Yes, the Green Wave finished with a better overall record than the Bearcats (5-7) and finished higher in the American Athletic Conference (3-5, fifth in the AAC West), but a missed field goal in the last few minutes of their matchup with the Bearcats handed UC a 17-16 win.

Despite that heart-wrenching (for Tulane at least) decision, the Green Wave are still seemingly on the way up. They nearly earned bowl eligibility last year, finishing 5-7 overall, which was a one-game improvement from 2016 when head coach Willie Fritz began his rebuild of the program. The next step is getting into the postseason. Avoiding another one-point loss to UC would help with that.

When Do They Play Cincinnati?

The first college football weekend of October is one of the best of the entire year. At least that’s what a genius said in this article. Cincinnati’s matchup on that glorious Saturday is Tulane, which will visit Nippert Stadium on Oct. 6, a week after the Bearcats open American Athletic Conference play against UConn. This also happens to be homecoming, so its a big weekend all around.

What They Do Well

What was perhaps most odd about Tulane’s loss to UC was that it came because of a downfall of its special teams and offense. The Green Wave have one of the better special teams units in AAC and placekicker Merek Glover is a big reason for that. The miss he had against the Bearcats was his only one of the season.

The kicking game wasn’t just good in getting points. Tulane was very strong on kickoffs as well, both as the kicking and returning team. The Green Wave allowed an AAC-low 17.26 yards per return last season and managed a little more than 20 yards per return themselves.

I also mentioned that it was surprising that the offense failed Tulane against UC. That’s not to say the Green Wave were a top tier offense nationally, but they finished among the top 50 squads in the country in offensive S&P+ and feature one of the better rushing attacks around. Fritz’s unique offensive philosophy powers the run game reliance, which led to 231.5 yards per game for the cause.

All that running also made Tulane a team that controlled the clock and the ball. They ranked second in the conference in time of possession and only turned the ball over 11 times, making for a +8 turnover margin. Mistakes with the ball were also balanced by very few penalties (70 total, third-fewest in the AAC).

Where Tulane needs the most work is on defense, but there were positives to be taken from last year. Led by all-AAC cornerback Parry Nickerson, Tulane had the third-best passing defense in the league. Additionally, they had the best red zone defense in the AAC, allowing a conference-low 74.4 percent of red zone trips to turn into scores. With Nickerson gone to the NFL, replicating that pass defense will be tough, but not impossible, while the red zone defense should still be solid.

What They Don’t Do Well

Nickerson’s departure is just going to compound an already weak defense. Even though they were good in the red zone, the Green Wave finished 118th in the nation in defensive S&P+. That’s what we in the business call bad. A lack of a pass rush really hurt. They had only 14 sacks and 58 tackles for loss, which were both numbers that circled the AAC drain. Several of the leading contributors in those categories are gone, which just makes matters worse.

Here’s the good news: Robert Kennedy has a real chance to come in and be a top defensive end. A redshirt senior, Kennedy only played in five games last season but is pegged for a much bigger role this year.

No matter how they construct the Nickerson-less secondary or how well Kennedy plays, the Green Wave desperately need the entire defense to come together and be effective on third down. Nearly 45 percent of opponent tries on third down led to first downs last fall, which was not only difficult to deal with defensively, but made worse by the offense’s own struggles in converting on third down. Even when they did stop a team on third down, good field position wasn’t usually attained afterward, with Tulane averaging about three yards per punt return.

Players to Watch

Jonathan Banks, QB

The Bearcats should trade for Banks, you know, if that was something teams could do. He is a dual-threat quarterback and one of the best in the AAC.

Darius Bradwell, RB

Bradwell only ran for 14 yards on three carries against UC last year but that was because Dontrell Hilliard was still the starter. Bradwell averaged 6.2 yards per carry as Hilliard’s backup and will step into a starting role. He is going to succeed there.

Corey Dauphine, RB

The folks at Fear the Wave know what they’re talking about.

Terren Encalade, WR

Tulane isn’t going to pass you to death, but when they do throw, Encalade is the receiver you need to stop. He turned 39 receptions into 730 yards and four touchdowns last year and even added some work on the ground.

Corey Dublin, OL

A 12-game starter as a freshman, Dublin will help power the point of attack for the running game.

Robert Kennedy, DE

I mentioned Kennedy above. He is a potential breakout candidate.

Donnie Lewis, CB

Someone has to replace Nickerson as the leader of the secondary and Lewis seems like a good choice. He had two interceptions and a team-high 11 passes defended a year ago.

Series History

UC has won three of the last four meetings (even if last year’s was by the skin of its teeth). Tulane still leads the all-time series, 11-5.

Would This Be Better as a Basketball Game?

UC beat Tulane by nearly 30 points this past season, so I’m going with no.

Prediction Time!

Both of these teams have their eyes set on big steps forward in 2018. Tulane’s run-heavy offense is going to be just as good as it was last year, so that will invite trouble to the door for the Bearcats. Not having Nickerson will make an already questionable defense worse, but if Lewis and Kennedy step up, this could be a dark-horse contender in the AAC and a team that can (unfortunately) beat UC.