NEW ORLEANS — Tulane isn’t just trying to win on the scoreboard this weekend.
While the Green Wave (0-4) would love nothing more than to snap its 14-game losing streak, its 140-mile trip across Interstate 10 to face Louisiana-Lafayette has longer-term implications than just another nonconference game. It also puts Tulane in direct competition with one of its most familiar rivals on the recruiting trail.
Tulane and ULL (3-1) renew their rivalry for the first time since 2000 at 4 p.m. Saturday at Cajun Field.
“This game is very important — not only on the field, but just for recruiting, too,” Tulane freshman safety Darion Monroe said. “We are competing with them for in-state players in a lot of ways. This game will probably help determine where some of the kids who are not recruited by LSU end up going to school.
“We know they look at Tulane and now definitely ULL and even (Louisiana-Monroe), since they have a winning program. We just have to go out and compete and show everybody that we are a team that is going in the right direction and do everything to win and change our reputation.”
Of Tulane’s 16 current commitments for the 2013 signing class, 13 are from south Louisiana, with a heavy emphasis in the New Orleans area. When Tulane coach Curtis Johnson accepted the job on Dec. 5, 2011, he promptly announced his intentions to focus recruiting on Louisiana. He began referring to it as the “State of Tulane.”
In many ways, what Johnson hopes to build mirrors what ULL coach Mark Hudspeth has already done. In his first season, the Ragin’ Cajuns snapped a lengthy postseason drought thanks to ULL’s victory in last year’s New Orleans Bowl, securing the school’s first bowl win in four decades.
In just one year, the Cajuns went from being a schedule-filling cupcake to a program considered “on the rise.” And when fighting for talent in south Louisiana, those kinds of distinctions make a difference.
Through four games of Johnson’s tenure at Tulane, he hasn’t earned those types of accolades.
Instead, the Green Wave are ranked No. 124 — dead last — according to USA Today’s latest FBS rankings, way below ULL at No. 65. It’s a perception several Tulane players take responsibility for.
Even fifth-year senior quarterback D.J. Ponder said he recognizes that in order to make the program attractive to future prospects, it must first show improvement on the field.
“I mean, I’m not going to be here next year or anything, but I know that recruits see these games,” Ponder said. “I know it’s a big game for coach and I know they have recruits around the state who are thinking about ULL and ULM and a lot of times, guys want to go where they think they can win.
“If it’s an in-state game or an out-of-state game, it doesn’t really matter. But if we were to go to ULL and there was a guy on the border and we beat them at their place, that guy might say, ‘Hey, they just beat them at Cajun Field, so I want to go there instead.’ It’s big for us.”
Yet Johnson shied away from the notion that Saturday’s outcome will directly sway any recruits to either school, regardless of who wins. Tulane opened the week as a 23-point underdog, and the line moved to 271/2 in favor of ULL by Friday.
Johnson said the result is less important than the ability to show prospects a path to the future and downplayed the direct competition with ULL.
“You’re always concerned about that if you continue to lose and nothing looks good,” Johnson said. “But the bottom line with this is, recruiting is about relationships. When guys come, I think they love the school and they love the academics. When you look outside, you can’t be more happy with the weather and the school.
“A $62,000-a-year education is just awesome. Recruits will come in here and they know. They watch the kids playing early, and I think the guys who really want to be here, the coaches will do a great job (with them). We’ll finish up in recruiting. I think the high school coaches really know what we’re doing.”
Monroe — who spurned a commitment to Texas A&M to attend Tulane last spring — echoed Johnson’s sentiment and said even though Tulane can improve its standing with prospects by showing progress on the field, he trusts Johnson to build the Wave’s talent base, no matter what transpires.
“The play on the field has a role in making the decision, but even after I saw Tulane struggle last year, I wanted to come here because the coaching staff here is tremendous,” Monroe said. “They are the kind of guys you want to fight for, and if you watch our games, you’ll realize that most of what’s gone wrong this year is on us because of mental mistakes and just not executing enough.
“We’re doing it the right way.”