The first words coach Curtis Johnson uttered after Tulane’s last-second 24-21 win against North Texas went straight to the point.
“Our defense played outstanding,” he said.
On an afternoon when the offense struggled from start to finish, the defense gave the Green Wave a chance to win, limiting North Texas to three first downs and zero points in the first half of Saturday’s game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
In the second half, the defense went on the offensive. Nose tackle Chris Davenport tipped a screen pass into the hands of cornerback Lorenzo Doss, who returned it 59 yards for a touchdown as Tulane went ahead 21-7.
“I saw the screen action, and I just took into consideration that I could drop back and affect the throwing lane,” Davenport said. “I was hoping I would have caught it and got me an interception, but I tipped it and helped make a big-time play for the defense.”
That play was nothing new. Tulane was tied for the NCAA lead in forced turnovers with 16 entering the game and led the nation in deflections.
“We set a goal at the beginning of the season to be No. 1 in our conference in turnovers,” safety Darion Monroe said. “You can look it up. We lead the nation in turnovers right now.”
Doss also had an interception in the first half, giving him nine for his 18-game career, and Tulane has picked off nine passes in six games.
“As a true freshman he had five picks, and he may have 10 this year,” Johnson said. “He’s just a ball hawk. Sometimes he makes me mad because he gambles, but he’s so good he can gamble. I hope I can keep him for four years because this kid has a bright future.”
The game’s first series set the tone. North Texas wide receiver Carlos Harris could not get past Tulane linebacker Zach Davis on a shovel pass sweep, gaining two yards. Davenport stuffed running back Brandin Byrd for no gain. Quarterback Derek Thompson then was nowhere close on a third-down pass as the Mean Green went three-and-out.
Tulane limited North Texas to 34 yards rushing on 20 attempts, with Davenport dominating the middle. The Mean Green returned four offensive starters from last year, when it allowed fewer sacks (six) than any team in the nation.
“If we start fast, we are going to win a game nine times out of 10,” Davenport said. “That was a good offensive line, but I had it set in mind that I was going to impose my will on this team,” Davenport said. “That’s what we came out as a defense and did. We started to take over the game. That’s as well as we’ve played as a defense this year.”
North Texas tied the score with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, but the Tulane defense received little help from the offense, which managed only 227 yards. Without its effort in the first three quarters, the Wave never would have had a lead to lose.
“The defense played great,” said quarterback Nick Montana, who was sacked five times and threw for only 132 yards. “They gave us so many opportunities to put the game away, and we didn’t.”
Davis and Nickelback Derrick Strozier was credited with a team-high seven tackles. Linebacker Nico Marley, cornerback Jordan Batiste and Monroe added five tackles.
Despite the offense’s struggles, the defense continued to play hard.
“We stayed together,” safety Darion Monroe said. “We never got down on our offense.”
The Green Wave hardly missed a tackle in the first half and did not allow a first down on North Texas’ two possessions in the second quarter.
“The defense has done a fantastic job in practice on tackling,” Johnson said. “After the second game of the season I’ve thought we’ve tackled well this whole season. I love the way we are bringing players in and out, alternating the right guys and playing a lot of good players. We are turning the corner and beginning to get better and better.”
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