Metheny leads South Alabama past Tulane 41-39

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ -- Tulane's Ryan Grant runs into the end zone for a touchdown in the third quarter with South Alabama's Charles Watson in pursuit during a game Sept. 7 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ -- Tulane's Ryan Grant runs into the end zone for a touchdown in the third quarter with South Alabama's Charles Watson in pursuit during a game Sept. 7 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

This loss didn’t prompt the typical Tulane responses.

The Green Wave wasn’t physically overmatched or short on athletes in its 41-39 loss to South Alabama on Saturday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“It wasn’t about all of that,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “We talked about it all week long: The most desperate team was going to win this game, and I thought they were a lot more desperate than us. We really didn’t do much in the first half, and then our eyes opened up in the second half.”

By the time Tulane (1-1) was able to pull out of its early funk, it trailed 28-7. Even after a gutty comeback allowed Tulane to re-take the lead late in the third quarter, a lack of execution on a few critical plays doomed any hope of starting 2-0 for the first time since 2002 or posting consecutive wins since 2009.

Instead, the Green Wave’s bowl hopes were dealt an early blow as Tulane became the second Football Bowl Subdivision team to lose to the Jaguars (1-1), who are in their fifth season in program history.

“I’m hurt right now,” Tulane senior receiver Ryan Grant said. “It hurts really bad.”

The Green Wave was just a play away from tying the score. With Tulane trailing 41-33, an overturned interception inside the South Alabama 10-yard handed it renewed life with less than two minutes to go.

Quarterback Nick Montana took advantage by finding Grant in the end zone, leaving Tulane a two-point conversion from potentially forcing overtime. But Montana never found a clean look as Jaguars defenders converged and nabbed an interception to end the rally.

“We had a chance,” Montana said. “We didn’t finish.”

Still, Johnson was most rankled by the first half — particularly the first quarter.

Quicksand covered the Green Wave defense starting at the opening kickoff and didn’t slow until midway through the second quarter. South Alabama quarterback Ross Metheny tallied 137 passing yards and 63 rushing in the first quarter alone en route to a four-touchdown half.

South Alabama wasted no time shaking off the rust from its opening-week loss to Southern Utah, driving 75 yards in four plays to jump on top less than a minute into the game. Metheny gashed Tulane’s defense through the middle, running to convert a third down just two plays before scampering 35 yards for a touchdown.

It didn’t take much longer for USA to increase its lead to 14-0, marching 60 yards in just 56 seconds, highlighted by Metheny’s 14-yard strike to Shavarez Smith in the middle of the end zone.

Tulane pieced together an answer on the ensuing drive, churning out three third-down conversions, including Ryan Grant’s 41-yard completion, prior to Orleans Darkwa’s 2-yard touchdown run.

But the score was merely a respite in South Alabama’s early offensive onslaught.

Consecutive touchdown drives fueled by Metheny’s arm and legs pushed South Alabama in front 28-7 and further exposed flaws in the Green Wave defense. First Metheny connected with Davin Hawkins in the corner of the end zone on a 30-yard touchdown, then he capped an 80-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown sprint.

“It took us time to adjust,” linebacker Dominique Robertson said. “We didn’t come out with the same intensity as we did last week, and we paid the consequences for it. So we had to play catch-up.”

Despite the momentum, Tulane didn’t let it become a rout. Montana completed five passes on the ensuing drive, including a 29-yard touchdown strike to Justyn Shackleford.

The lead squeezed even tighter when South Alabama fumbled a punt out of its own end zone for a safety, and Cairo Santos connected on a 47-yard field goal to chop USA’s advantage to 28-19.

Just when it appeared Tulane wrangled some momentum, Metheny directed the Jaguars 46 yards in the final 90 seconds of the half to set up Aleem Sunanon’s 46-yard field goal as time expired.

Tulane swung the game back in its favor as its defense turned from feeble to fearsome in the second half.

It started when linebacker Nico Marley intercepted a deflected pass, setting up the Green Wave at USA’s 15-yard line. Darkwa carried the offense the rest of the way, utilizing a screen pass and two handoffs to plow into the end zone from 1 yard out to cut the Jaguars’ lead to 31-26.

Five snaps later, Marley recovered a fumble, and Dominique Robertson nabbed an interception on the following possession. Montana parlayed his defense’s success by launching a 40-yard touchdown pass to Grant, earning Tulane its first lead of the game.

It didn’t take long for South Alabama to make a break of its own, recapturing the lead for good in the process.

Quadrus Ford broke through the line to block Peter Picerelli’s punt, allowing Terrance Timmons to recover in the end zone and bypass the improved Green Wave defense onto the scoreboard.

A few empty trips by the Green Wave offense and a 43-yard pass by Metheny set up another Sunamon field goal, pushing the lead to 41-33 and forcing Tulane to convert a two-point conversion following its next score.

The margin turned out to be just enough for the Jaguars, and now Tulane is reeling as it prepares to travel to Louisiana Tech in its Conference USA opener Thursday night.

“The problem when you have a team that’s not accustomed to winning sometimes, you take winning for granted,” Johnson said. “We told them, you’ve gotta come out, and you’ve gotta play hard all the time. And this is a lesson well learned. I think this lesson will be beneficial down the road.”