TU’s recent play has pluses, minuses

NEW ORLEANS — Looking back on his offense’s production in the first five weeks of the season, Tulane football coach Curtis Johnson joked on Tuesday he was ready to quit.

When Tulane’s offense ranked last nationally in nearly every production category (points scored, rushing yards, first downs, third down conversions) over a month into the season, frustration filled the former wide receivers coach to the point of insomnia. Now, after the Green Wave (2-7, 2-3 Conference USA) broke school passing records in consecutive weeks, he’s found a new source of aggravation — losing close games.

Tulane’s 49-47 loss to Rice last weekend pained Johnson and his team worse than any other this season. The Green Wave overcame a 28-7 deficit to take a lead, but allowed the Owls to slip away in the fourth quarter.

“I’m proud of them and impressed with our fight and our hard work but we really don’t give brownie points for that,” Johnson said. “We give brownie points for wins. … We have got to come together as a football team and win these games. We would hope to win the games like this down the stretch. These are ones we have to win.”

It includes this Saturday’s contest, when Tulane travels to Memphis to face the struggling Tigers (1-8, 1-4) at 6 p.m. in the Liberty Bowl.

Meanwhile, Tulane’s improvement, particularly on offense, is obvious. After scoring just 92 points in its first seven games, the Green Wave’s passing game exploded over the past two weeks as Tulane racked up 102 points and 942 passing yards.

The rapid improvement of Tulane’s offense even took some of its participants by surprise.

“I guess you could say I didn’t really see this coming from where we were, when you consider it was hard to even get a first down for a while there,” offensive lineman Adam Skidmore said. “At the beginning of the season, if you would have told me we would hold up pass protection well enough to break the school passing record, then do it again the next game, I probably wouldn’t have believed that.”

While the numbers are receiving recognition from fans and media, it’s not enough to satisfy Johnson. Close losses to Rice and UTEP have gotten under the first-year coach’s skin as he tries to send a message that improvement without victories isn’t good enough for the program to move forward at his desired pace.

It’s a lesson Johnson pressed this the week, citing squandered opportunities as the ones which hinder big-picture progress and stick in a memory bank long after the game ends.

“Since that Rice game, CJ has talked a lot about how we have to do more to take advantage of winning games when we have the chance to do it because losses like that stay with you long after you’re done playing,” freshman safety Darion Monroe said. “I look back right now, and it really bugs me the way we let it slip away. I fumbled a punt return, we gave up some big third downs and we just lost a game that we definitely could have won.

“Losing to UTEP because of a slow start bothers me too. We have done enough to show we can compete with anyone and are going to keep playing without quitting, but we have to win also. We have to remember that when we take the field against Memphis and get off to a fast start.”

The first quarter has been an unflappable indicator of Tulane’s success so far this season. It has lost every game it’s trailed at the end of the opening quarter and won the only two games it led early.

Despite a valiant comeback, the mistake-laden early deficit stuck out most to Johnson when he re-watched the loss to Rice on film, lamenting his team’s lack of intensity at the game’s onset. Playing in front of a sparse crowd, on the road against a fellow bowl-ineligible team this week provides another challenge in staying mentally prepared.

“We’ve got to be ready, ready to play,” Johnson said. “I don’t think early on we were very alert as to what was going on (against Rice). It wasn’t any one individual or whatever. It was almost like we woke up and we were down 21-7. It was 14-0 for sure when we kind of woke up.

“It was uncharacteristic. That was disheartening to see. And then finally, we almost had to shake them and once they did it, we started playing the type of ball we should have been playing.”

Johnson’s point is clear to his players. The remaining three games on the schedule, while meaningless in terms of postseason hopes, aren’t about showing a modicum of development but about producing results.

Anything less is considered unacceptable.

“What was good enough early in the season and even in camp isn’t good enough any more,” Monroe said. “We need to come out and play to win these games to show everybody we are moving the right way.”