Late field goal gives Tulane a landmark win

It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t even pretty.

In fact, it was hardly bearable at times for Tulane coach Curtis Johnson.

But, when considering the history Tulane overcame in its 24-21 win over North Texas on Saturday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it’s cause for celebration. And that’s exactly what the Green Wave (4-2, 2-0 Conference USA) did when Cairo Santos connected on a 27-yard field goal as time expired to lift Tulane to its best start since 1998.

“When it went through, I just ran around everywhere,” sophomore safety Darion Monroe said. “The first thing I did was went up to the student section and jumped in the crowd.”

The win marked Tulane’s first consecutive victories since 2009 and its first homecoming win since 2006. The Green Wave has opened conference play 2-0 for the first time since 1998. It also was the 500th win in program history, now in its 119th season.

“It’s a new team, and it’s a new vibe,” senior running back Orleans Darkwa said. “Everybody is performing, and everybody is supporting each other. We just have to keep it going.”

Tulane’s toughness and opportunistic nature was the catalyst on an afternoon when it was outgained 360-227 and produced just 3.4 yards per play. A special teams touchdown off a blocked field goal and an interception returned for a score swung the scoreboard in Tulane’s favor, but a gritty offensive possession set up the winning points.

Just seconds after watching its 14-point fourth quarter lead disappear, and with 3:45 remaining in regulation, Green Wave quarterback Nick Montana directed the offense 66 yards in 11 plays. He completed four passes during the drive (three to receiver Ryan Grant), helping churn out four first downs. He also slipped away from Mean Green defenders for a 13-yard scramble to pull Tulane across midfield.

“The defense played great and gave us so many opportunities to put the game away, and we didn’t,” Montana said. “When that drive came, I think everyone knew what we had to do. We do practice simulations just like that. (Johnson) usually makes it harder, and we usually don’t have that much time. So everyone was calm and composed, and we got it done.”

North Texas (2-3, 0-1) showed some gumption of its own as it erased that 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter. On the heels of his defense allowing two devastating Tulane scores, Mean Green quarterback Derek Thompson directed two touchdown drives to even the score at 21. Meanwhile, the North Texas defense stuffed Tulane’s offense for nearly the entire second half, surrendering just one first down until midway through the fourth quarter.

Ultimately, the difference was Tulane’s final drive and a pair of big plays.

In a season marred by special-teams errors in critical situations, the Green Wave got a positive jolt from that group. Midway through the third quarter, North Texas lined up for a 38-yard field goal with a chance to take a 10-7 lead. Instead, Tulane sophomore Darion Monroe broke through the middle of the line to block the kick with the front of his helmet, allowing Derrick Strozier to scoop it in stride and cruise 68 yards untouched into the end zone.

It was the first field-goal block for a touchdown in school history.

“We thought we could we could block a field goal through that gap,” Johnson said. “So that worked out.”

Three plays later, the Green Wave defense added to the fireworks. Defensive tackle Chris Davenport tipped a pass into the waiting arms of cornerback Lorenzo Doss, who turned upfield and bolted 59 yards for a touchdown.

It was Doss’ second interception of the game and ninth of his career (in just 18 career games) — and it had Tulane’s revamped defense flying high. The Green Wave allowed just 34 rushing yards and made the Mean Green one-dimensional in the second half.

“I had it on my mind and knew that I just had to go out there and create turnovers,” Doss said.

After a scoreless opening quarter, Tulane jumped in front by executing a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the second. Montana completed all four of his attempts totaling 44 yards, including a 6-yard connection with Justyn Shackleford in the corner of the end zone to take a 7-0 lead.

North Texas’ offense didn’t come alive until its first possession of the second half, when it provided Thompson ample time to throw and the quarterback picked apart the Green Wave for gains of 40, 21 and 8 yards to get deep in Tulane territory. The Mean Green knotted the score at 7 when Thompson fumbled across the goal line, and lineman Mason Y’Barbo recovered in the end zone.

Tulane’s defense stiffened on North Texas’ next opportunity, setting up the Green Wave’s special teams highlight and swinging the game in its favor.

Now the Green Wave finds itself atop Conference USA’s West Division, boasting two wins against division foes (North Texas and Louisiana Tech) and in the thick of a league championship hunt in October for the first time since 1998. There isn’t much time to savor the spot: C-USA favorite East Carolina visits the Superdome for a 2:30 p.m. matchup next Saturday.

“We have until 2 o’clock tomorrow to have a good time,” Johnson said. “Then we have to go back to work because we have a tough ECU team coming in, and they’re probably the best team in the league.”