Deciphering the status of Tulane’s running game is a difficult task, even for its participants.
Green Wave coach Curtis Johnson pinned most of the problem on the game’s situation, citing an early 28-7 deficit that stripped him of flexibility, forcing a reliance on the passing game. Running back Orleans Darkwa shouldered it on himself and the other running backs, who failed to make the most of seams or generate bursts through the second level of the defense.
And the Tulane offensive line, which has struggled since Johnson’s arrival, finishing 119th nationally in rushing last year, once again failed to provide a consistent push or open up holes. Even in its season-opening 34-7 win over Jackson State, the Green Wave (1-1) amassed just 3.7 yards per attempt and slowed significantly after generating 100 yards in the first half.
“There are a lot of things we can do better because we are nowhere close to where we want to be,” said Darkwa, a preseason Doak Walker Award candidate. “You just look at the yards per carry and it’s pretty clear. We’ve gotten some holes to run through, we just have to hit it harder. And we need to emphasize it from the moment the game starts. We can’t fall behind and then watch the game plan move away from us because of the situation. If we can do our job from the beginning, it won’t be an issue.”
On Tuesday, Johnson admitted his game plan against South Alabama was intended to lean heavily on the run, hoping success from the ground would free up quarterback Nick Montana and buy time on play-action passes. But as the deficit grew, offensive coordinator Eric Price repeatedly dialed up pass attempts, allowing Montana to complete 29 of 47 passes for 327 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
“I don’t know what play can get you back in a game when you’re down 28-7 or even 31-19,” Johnson said.
“We had to advance the ball, so we had to throw it a lot. But going into the game, that was not the plan at all. We had to do it.
“I think there was a light at the end of the tunnel because we did complete a lot of balls and played decent in the passing game. Now we have to run it.”
Beyond just a successful running game, Johnson said he wants to create a sense of balance in Tulane’s offense. Through two games, the Green Wave’s play-calling has been lopsided.
But there’s still no true consensus on a solution.
Tulane already pared down its running back rotation, dropping from six running backs to three, and fed Darkwa the majority of carries.
Now, Johnson said, it may sacrifice potential passing targets for additional blockers, with the hope of keeping Louisiana Tech’s defense honest.
“We want to play a balanced attack,” Johnson said. “We’ll try everything to do it, but we haven’t gotten there yet. We didn’t run the ball well last year, and we didn’t run it well last week. There are a lot of things we can try to do to improve it, but I’d really like to run the ball a lot more than we did. There are a lot of factors that go into it, though.”
After suspending five players for at least one game, Tulane will have its full healthy roster to use Thursday night in Ruston.
Senior linebacker Zach Davis was the only player suspended for both games but is listed on this week’s depth chart.
Tulane will also employ the services of two freshman for the first time as receiver Kedrick Banks and linebacker Edward Williams have both been cleared after missing the first two games because of leg injuries.
Johnson said he’s particularly excited to see Williams play, since the former Texas Tech commitment and prize of the 2013 signing class has been sidelined from full contact since the first week of fall camp.
“He’s playing in this game, and he’s playing a lot,” Johnson said. “He’s still a little gimpy from that ankle, but we’ve got to play Edward. He’s a good player. He gives us a physical presence. We needed him last week, but he’s going to play this week.”
The only significant injury was to outside linebacker Kyle Davis, who suffered a concussion. His return date is uncertain.