The table is almost set for an all-Louisiana bowl game.
Louisiana-Lafayette has agreed in principle to play in the New Orleans Bowl for the third consecutive season, regardless of its result against UL-Monroe on Saturday or South Alabama on Dec. 7, a source close to the bowl told The Advocate.
The Ragin’ Cajuns (8-2, 5-0 Sun Belt) are the only unbeaten team in their conference, with Arkansas State trailing by a game. UL-Lafayette can clinch the conference championship with a win in either of its final two games.
Tulane is likely to join them in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Dec. 21, pending the results of this weekend. If the Green Wave (7-4, 5-2 Conference USA) is unable to reach the Conference USA championship game, it will be headed to the New Orleans Bowl, according to the same source.
In order for Tulane to represent C-USA’s West Division in next week’s championship game, it will not only need to defeat Rice in Houston on Saturday but also receive help in the form of Louisiana Tech defeating UTSA to force a favorable three-way tie atop the division standings.
If Tulane is able to win the Conference USA title, it is likely headed for the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn., which is given first choice amongst the league’s bowl partners and traditionally chooses the champion.
Spokesmen from both schools declined to comment Thursday.
Tulane Athletic Director Rick Dickson recently told The Advocate he is forbidden by the league office from lobbying his school to individual bowls, and his team will be slotted into a bowl by the league office.
Dickson said the conference has held multiple calls with the league’s postseason-eligible schools about potential bowl scenarios over the past several weeks, allowing athletic directors to represent their interests.
The Green Wave has not participated in a bowl since it defeated Hawaii 36-28 in the Hawaii Bowl in 2002. UL-Lafayette has won consecutive New Orleans Bowls, defeating San Diego State and East Carolina the past two years.
Both Rice’s offense and Tulane’s defense like when the ball is on the ground.
So, naturally, the majority of attention for this Saturday’s regular season finale between the Owls (8-3, 6-1 Conference USA) and Green Wave (7-4, 5-2) is being placed at the line of scrimmage.
Led by physical quarterback Taylor McHargue and C-USA’s leading rusher Charles Ross, Rice has churned up opponents for an average of 251 yards per game on the ground, making it easily the best in the league. Yet, at the same time, Tulane has thrived against similarly styled offenses this year.
After years of struggling to curb rushing numbers in a league chocked full of teams who live off of a spread-run attack, Tulane has allowed just 3.3 yards per carry this season, thanks to adding significant bulk up front and speed at linebacker and safety. The only difference this week; Rice does it better than the rest of the league.
“All year, we have pretty much faced this kind of gameplan because of the conference we are in,” senior defensive tackle Julius Warmsley said. “There are a bunch of teams who run the same offense, but Rice does it a bit more efficiently than the others. They are consistent in what they do and have been doing it for years.
“They are an open book. But they just say, ‘hey, come stop us,’ and it’s not easy to do. But I think we have proven this year, we are different than we have been before, now we just need to execute and make it harder on them to do what they like to do.”
The last time Tulane faced off against the Owls, Rice piled up 211 yards rushing and scored 28 points in the first half en route to a 49-47 win. It was a start Warmsley called “the old Tulane” and said he expects a far different start at 2 p.m. Saturday, with a chance for the C-USA West Division championship on the line.
The Green Wave can still reach the C-USA championship by beating Rice and Louisiana Tech defeating UTSA. The Owls control their own destiny and can win the West outright by defeating Tulane.
“We know the implications of everything and we can’t get caught up again and playing from behind because it makes it easier for them to keep running if they have a lead,” Warmsley said. “If we just come out and play with the attitude we have had for most of this year, it shouldn’t be a problem. I expect nothing less.”
Tulane will be without one of its most experienced contributors, as starting center Zach Morgan was ruled out for Saturday’s game because of a hip and leg injury, according to coach Curtis Johnson.
The fifth-year senior has started 37 games, more than anyone else on the Green Wave roster, and served as an anchor for an improving offensive line. He will be replaced by fellow senior Mike
Henry, who started all of last season while Morgan redshirted and also played during most of Tulane’s 45-3 victory over UTEP last week. Guard Nathan Sheinle will be Henry’s backup.
“Zach is probably one of our better run blockers,” Johnson said. “But I still think we can run the ball.”
Rice has seen enough film to know exactly what Tulane is aiming to do defensively. The Green Wave has forced 31 turnovers including 14 interceptions in 11 games, leading the league in both categories.
With the exception of last week’s blowout over UTEP, those big plays have fueled Tulane’s victories and helped it overcome a sputtering and sometimes sporadic offense. Keeping the ball away from the Green Wave defense has become the focal point for the Owls’ offense.
“They’re solid on defense, they play hard and live off of turnovers,” McHargue said. “This is going to be a week where we have to win the turnover battle. I think all of their losses this year have come when they lost the turnover battle, so that’s a big stat for this week.”
It’s one that hasn’t escaped Tulane either. Cornerback Lorenzo Doss, whose seven interceptions have him tied for first place in C-USA, said opposing offenses have been trying for months to limit mistakes, but thanks to the pressure from its defensive line and aggressive scheme, there are still ample opportunities for Tulane’s defensive backs to make plays.
“We know they would rather be safe than give us a chance to pick it off,” Doss said. “But there’s not much they can do about it when out line is doing as well as they have and they have to throw the ball. We’re not scared to come up and maybe get a bit out of position to try to make the play and that’s what has made us so successful this year.”