NEW ORLEANS — Dante Butler cried. Kyle Davis did a backflip. Ryan Griffin just sighed in relief.
It had been a while.
Tulane snapped its 15-game losing streak, the longest in the FBS, defeating SMU 27-26 on Saturday afternoon at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. In a season marred by the losing streak, a devastating spinal injury to Devon Walker, high-profile arrests, suspensions, injuries to various other starters and a fuming fan base, the relief in first-year coach Curtis Johnson’s voice was evident and understandable.
“The guys were crying, and the love for each other was just pouring out,” Johnson said. “We talked about Devon and how much he means to us and this program. It was probably the best feeling I’ve ever had since the (New Orleans Saints) Super Bowl.”
After missing the past three weeks because of an injured shoulder, Griffin made a dramatic return as Tulane’s starting quarterback. The senior led the Green Wave (1-5, 1-1 Conference USA) 68 yards in the final two minutes, sealing the victory on a 16-yard touchdown pass to Robert Kelley across the middle.
The jolt of offense came after Tulane surrendered a 20-6 lead in the second half, falling behind 26-20 before Griffin took the field on the final possession. In just three plays, Griffin erased an entire half of frustration.
A pair of passes to Xavier Rush netted 53 yards, moving Tulane into striking distance before finding Kelley for the score. It no longer mattered SMU (2-4, 1-1) ran 41 more offensive plays, outgained Tulane by 129 yards or earned 16 more first downs.
When it counted, Griffin did enough to earn a victory and the senior quarterback said he credited big plays from receivers for allowing the Wave to hang on. Griffin’s coach chose to laud the quarterback.
“He is the type of kid that’s never-die,” Johnson said. “He is going to fight you to the end. He is a competitor, and he’s experienced at this. He’s done this several times. I never saw a panic in his face all day, and he always knew we would get the next one.”
Griffin started and finished in similarly spectacular fashion.
Tulane jumped in front early, stuffing SMU’s offense in three plays on the game’s opening possession. Griffin then efficiently drove the Wave 63 yards in four plays, completing three passes, including a 31-yarder to Kelley for the touchdown.
The Wave’s early lead was its first since leading 3-0 in a 45-10 loss to Tulsa on Sept. 8, and matched its largest advantage since holding a 7-0 lead in a 37-34 loss to Syracuse on Oct. 8, 2011.
SMU responded with a lengthy drive of its own, going 65 yards in 11 plays but stalled in the red zone, forcing the Mustangs to settle for a 27-yard field goal.
Tulane kicker Cairo Santos connected from 44 yards away, pushing the lead to 10-3 at the end of the opening quarter. It was the first time Tulane led at the end of any quarter since its 49-10 win over UAB on Sept. 17, 2011 — its last victory.
Stingy red zone defense buoyed the Green Wave throughout the first half. Tulane stuffed SMU inside the 5-yard line three times on Saturday, twice in the latter portion of the second quarter. One ended in a 22-yard Hover field goal and the other on a blocked kick by Tulane defenisve lineman Julius Warmsley.
“Special teams was huge,” Johnson said. “That was very important. Julius said all week that he can get it done.”
Griffin took immediate advantage, connecting with Marc Edwards on a 79-yard strike across the middle for a touchdown. It was Tulane’s longest play from scrimmage since 2004 and propelled the Wave to a 17-6 lead.
Edwards credited Griffin not only with the throw, but for calling an audible at the line of scrimmage to change the route. The adjustment paid dividends, as Edwards hauled in the pass at midfield and outran SMU’s defense the rest of the way.
“They called the correct defense, but you know, Griff did an even better job correcting it with a nice little audible,” Edwards said. “He told me to hit them with a corner-post and he put it right there. It was a good play.”
After thwarting SMU’s fourth-down attempt near midfield, Griffin completed three more quick passes to drive Tulane into the Mustangs’ red zone in 32 seconds, setting up Santos’ 35-yard field goal as the clock expired on the first half.
Just when it appeared Tulane was ready to go for the throat, running back Dante Butler fumbled at the SMU 13-yard line, spoiling the opportunity and marking a turning point in the game. The Mustangs’ followed it with a 52-yard Hover’s 52-yard field goal.
The lead was squeezed even further in the opening minute of the fourth when SMU finally broke through in the red zone. Garrett Gilbert found Jeremy Johnson on a 2-yard touchdown pass, swinging the momentum entirely in SMU’s favor.
The Mustangs carried it defensively, holding Tulane to its fifth three-and-out of the second half before grabbing its first lead of the game. Gilbert’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Darius Joseph completed the SMU comeback to take a 23-20 advantage.
Running back Zach Line and Gilbert helped the Mustangs chew up over six minutes off the clock, setting up a 19-yard field goal and handing Tulane the ball back with less than two minutes to play and no timeouts.
It turned out to be all Griffin would need. Now Tulane hopes to turn a snapped streak into winning momentum, as it travels to UTEP next week.
“We just need to get things rolling and build off this build some confidence,” Griffin said. “We will just keep rolling, keep the ball moving and continue this all season long.”
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