NEW ORLEANS — Sometimes the most useful advice is not offering any.
As least that’s the lesson first-year Tulane football coach Curtis Johnson claimed to learned Saturday afternoon, during the Green Wave’s 27-26 win over SMU.
After jumping out to a 20-6 halftime lead, Tulane’s largest advantage in over a year, Johnson said he tried to make some offensive adjustments in the locker room. Then, the Wave’s offense came to a screeching halt.
Over the next 28 minutes, Tulane (1-5, 1-1 Conference USA) went three-and-out five times and managed just two first downs, squandering its comfortable lead in the process. However, in less than a minute, the Wave’s offense perked up, traveling 68 yards in five plays to take the lead with just 47 seconds remaining to secure its first victory.
While Johnson credited quarterback Ryan Griffin along with receiver Xavier Rush and running back Robert Kelley for executing flawlessly, he also admits backing away from play-calling may have freed up his offense.
“I kind of got out of their way a little bit,” Johnson said. “I wanted to come out in the second half and do something special. So I kept saying ‘let’s do this and let’s do this’. I think I confused the coaches a little bit. I think it was more or less up to me saying ‘OK, come on. You guys got it’.
“Then, once I did that, it seemed to go good. The first half went really well, but then I went and did these NFL halftime adjustments and they didn’t work. I think we got back into the groove a little bit and finally (scored on) that last drive.”
Tulane will try to carry over the momentum from its final drive when it travels to El Paso, Texas, on Saturday to face UTEP at 7 p.m.
Johnson referred to himself as a “middleman” in offensive coordinator Eric Price’s scheme, which produced its best results season by a wide margin. Tulane threw for 302 yards against SMU but Price admits the numbers are skewed since 206 of those yards came in just seven plays, resulting in all three of its touchdowns.
Tulane held the ball for less than 20 minutes, managed just 48 plays from scrimmage and converted only three-of-11 third-down attempts. Price refuted Johnson’s claim as an offensive obstructionist, and instead pointed to a lack of consistency which has plagued his unit all season.
“Sometimes it just takes a play here or there to give you enough to win a game,” Price said. “We were far from perfect on what we did most of the game, but it’s hard when things aren’t going good to not lose your confidence. But our guys really didn’t.
“Finding a rhythm this season has been tough, and everything comes in spurts. It felt great that we made the most out of those opportunities and spurts by scoring some touchdowns, but we know there’s plenty of work left for us to do it every time.”
Having a senior quarterback with 33 career starts in Griffin also takes a lot of pressure off the offensive coordinator and play-caller, Price said. During the game-clinching drive, Griffin was given full autonomy to run the two-minute offense.
Price said Griffin called nearly identical plays in marching down the field, choosing open receivers in different situations to propel the Wave into the end zone.
“When we go no-huddle, Griff is just really good at it and we let him call the plays,” Price said. “He’s really smart and this offense fits him big-time. He can stay in the pocket without having to run, and you just need to throw to the right guy. He understands how to switch protections from the line of scrimmage, and it’s night and day from where we were for those games without him.”
Griffin’s display on the game-winning drive may have also renewed Johnson’s faith in his offensive staff. The head coach said it’ll be easier to step aside in the future and allow the offense to operate without his input.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t trust (the offensive staff),” Johnson said. “It’s just that my ideas can be a little out there sometimes. We have the same plays and whatever, but I think they have a handle on what they can and cannot do. Once we got that figured out and once they got me knocked out the way, it was good.”