Tulane tries to win finale in first year of Curtis Johnson era

Advocate staff photo by RUSTY COSTANZATulane quarterback Ryan Griffin, right, congratulates wide receiver Xavier Rush after a big play during last week's home finale against East Carolina. Griffin, a fifth-year senior, plays his final college game Saturday when Tulane faces Houston. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by RUSTY COSTANZATulane quarterback Ryan Griffin, right, congratulates wide receiver Xavier Rush after a big play during last week's home finale against East Carolina. Griffin, a fifth-year senior, plays his final college game Saturday when Tulane faces Houston.

NEW ORLEANS — Ryan Travis doesn’t consider Saturday a case of playing out the string.

Tulane’s senior cornerback has one game left in his college career, at 2:30 p.m. in Robertson Stadium against Houston, and he intends to make it count.

No, the 2-9 Green Wave (2-5 Conference USA) can’t reach the postseason. It can’t play spoiler, either, since the Cougars (4-7, 3-4) were bumped from bowl contention last week.

What Travis and the rest of the Green Wave can do is prove the program’s foundation is in place and send Tulane into the offseason with a modicum of momentum for the first time in nearly a decade. Tulane hasn’t won a season finale since it had a 28-18 victory over East
Carolina in 2003.

“As seniors, we want people to know that team is in the best place it’s been in for a while,” Travis said. “We want this program to succeed going forward, even though we can’t be here to play for it. We want people to look back and say this is the year things got started under CJ (first-year coach Curtis Johnson), and even though the scoreboard may not show it all of the time, people can remember it.”

Playing for Travis and the rest of the senior class has become a rallying point for the Green Wave, who stumbled late in a 28-23 loss to East Carolina on Senior Day last week in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Tulane had several chances to pull an upset against the Pirates, who are tied for first place in C-USA’s Eastern Division, but faltered in the fourth quarter.

The Green Wave had similar late-game defeats against UTEP (24-20) and Rice
(49-47), costing them a chance to snap their 10-year bowl drought and gain full redemption from an ugly 0-5 start to the season.

“We left a lot of games out there that we could have won this season,” freshman safety Darion Monroe said. “There were some games early in the season where we didn’t really put ourselves in a position to win, but there are a lot of others that we had a chance and just didn’t get it done. I give a lot of credit to ... having those chances to the seniors and blame us young guys for not being able to finish them.

“That’s why we want this one so bad — because we missed out on Senior Night. So now we have do it on the road. We want these seniors to know how good they’ve been to us and how they are a big part of it when we build something special here at
Tulane.”

Tulane’s most accomplished senior is quarterback Ryan Griffin, who concludes his five-year Tulane career ranked among the school’s top 10 leaders in 12 statistical categories. In the past month alone, Griffin shattered Tulane’s single-game record for passing yardage twice, and he broke the career record for completions (800).

Johnson credited Griffin’s return from injury for Tulane’s offensive resurgence in the second half of the season. He said replacing Griffin next season is the program’s top priority.

“It’s been incredible having Griff back there for the second half of the season,” offensive lineman Adam Skidmore said. “I think some people don’t understand how much it matters to simply know the offense and be able to make those calls at the line of scrimmage like he does. We all really respect the guy for what he’s been able to do.

“Now, we would love to send him out with a win and give him the proper finish he deserves. He’s been great for a long time, we just need to finish it out on Saturday.”

While playing for pride isn’t the position Tulane wanted to find itself in, Johnson said he’s pleased with the way his group has rallied around the senior class and hasn’t let a dreadful record affect its effort. He praised Tulane’s passion in the loss to ECU, and hasn’t found a reason to skeptical about the future of his program.

Now, they just have to finish the final game.

“I think we are moving in the right direction,” Johnson said. “I think the No. 1 thing that you’ve got to ask yourself as a coach ... are these guys quitting? I don’t think so. I’m looking for guys in the program that I can point out and say, ‘Hey, look man, you can’t quit on us,’ and I don’t see it very much. So I think we are moving in the right direction.”