“I’ve still got a bitter taste in my mouth about that game. We’re really excited to play them again. ” ORLEANS DARKWA, Tulane running back
If Saturday’s loss to Syracuse proved Tulane was not ready to compete with major-conference opponents, the game this Saturday night at Louisiana-Monroe will provide a litmus test for where the Green Wave stands on its own level.
To get to 3-2 for the first time since 2003, Tulane has to avenge a humiliating 63-10 loss to ULM (2-2) in the Superdome last September. Another defeat would leave the Wave in familiar, unfriendly territory after what could have been a confidence-sapping performance at Syracuse.
“It’s always tough when you’re in a situation where you expect to be better and move your program up to a different level, and you didn’t perform well at all,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “We know we didn’t perform. We know we have to get better.”
Tulane could not have played worse than it did against ULM a year ago, when the team was still reeling from the cervical spinal fracture cornerback Devon Walker suffered two weeks earlier against Tulsa and emergency quarterback D.J. Ponder started in relief of the injured Ryan Griffin and Devin Powell.
“I’ve still got a bitter taste in my mouth about that game,” said senior running back Orleans Darkwa, who had seven carries for 7 yards against ULM.
“We’re really excited to play them again. We know we’re a better team than last year. This is really big for us. Everybody is focused, energized and ready to go.”
The Wave will not be outmanned athletically like it was against Syracuse, but it has to find an answer for ULM quarterback Kolton Browning. The clear focus in practice this week was preparing for Browning, who passed for 253 yards and three scores at the Superdome last year before exiting after the first series of the second half.
Browning threw for 3,049 yards and 29 touchdowns last season, leading ULM to the first bowl game (Independence) in its history, but his numbers are down across the board through four games this year. His completion percentage has dropped to .538 from .638. He has thrown seven touchdowns with six interceptions when his ratio was 29-10 a year ago. After running for 488 yards and seven scores in 2012, he has 90 yards and zero rushing touchdowns.
“He’s very shifty, so we have to make sure we contain him in the pocket,” Tulane defensive tackle Julius Warmsley said. “He doesn’t necessarily like to stay in the pocket. His release is very quick. He hates getting hit. If you look at the film, he hates getting hit, so we’ve got to hit him.”
The issue is not sacks. ULM’s quarterbacks have been sacked only five times.
“When (opponents) put pressure on him he’s thrown it to the other team,” Johnson said. “We need to get four-and five-man pressure on him.”
Tulane has struggled to slow down quarterbacks in both of its losses. South Alabama’s Ross Metheny threw for 290 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 75 yards and two more scores in the Jaguars’ 41-39 upset of the Wave at The Superdome. Syracuse’s Terrel Hunt threw four touchdowns, completing 16 of 21 passes in the Orange’s 52-17 romp.
Nose guard Chris Davenport said there were few similarities between Hunt and Browning.
“The QB From Syracuse stayed more in the pocket and scrambled around in the pocket,” Davenport said. “This guy, he wants to get outside the pocket. That’s where a lot of his plays are made. A lot of his plays are made on broken plays. You might get a read wrong, and the next thing you know the pass has opened up.”
Tulane received good news Thursday afternoon when strong safety Sam Scofield was cleared to play Saturday. Scofield, who has a team-high 29 tackles, left the Syracuse game with his first career concussion. He missed Tulane’s first two practices of the week but was back on the field Wednesday and Thursday.
“Honestly, I had no symptoms,” he said. “I’ve felt great. I haven’t felt bad at all.”
He will feel even better if Tulane can make up for last year’s debacle, ULM’s first win over the Wave in three tries. The 53-point margin was Tulane’s worst in a 2-10 season, but ULM coach Todd Berry discounted that result earlier this week.
“I’m not much into comparative scores from year to year or week to week,” Berry said. “This is all about who is ready to play this week and being ready for those match-ups.”
Still, it will provide an easy measuring stick for Tulane.
A win against a team that creamed it a year ago will add legitimacy to the Wave’s talk about its dramatic improvement.
“That was a pretty big loss for us,” Warmsley said. “If we play up to how we’ve been practicing this week, we’re going to have some fun.”
Johnson said running backs Orleans Darkwa and Rob Kelley, who had shoulder injuries against Syracuse, were cleared to play along with freshman offensive guard Chris Taylor, who sat out last Saturday with a knee sprain.
“I’d love to see him (Taylor) play,” Johnson said. “He’s one the kid that I felt was moving up the depth chart. He was probably the No. 6 offensive lineman in my mind (at the beginning of the year), and now he’s probably two or three. He’s one of the better players.”
Davenport and fellow LSU transfer Jeremy Peeples will play with padding on their injured hands. Davenport’s problem is less significant. Peeples played sparingly against Syracuse after having surgery on his right hand last week and wearing a cumbersome cast.
“It was just a club,” Johnson said. “It reminded me of Conrad Dobler back in the day. We’ve got to shave that down a little bit.”