If 2013 is supposed to provide a change in fortune for Tulane football, Thursday night provided a good preview.
The Green Wave controlled the line of scrimmage, and a series of turnovers and big plays allowed it to command the scoreboard throughout its season-opening, 34-7 win over Jackson State at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
After compiling the second-worst rushing total in the Football Bowl Subdivision last year (1.7 yards per carry), Tulane’s ground attack wasted no time trying to repair its image. Led by senior Orleans Darkwa, the Green Wave churned up 158 yards, eclipsing the 100-yard plateau in the second quarter.
In 2012, Tulane rushed for triple-digits in a game just once while sputtering to a 2-10 record.
The improved ground game wasn’t the only obvious difference displayed during the debut of coach Curtis Johnson’s second season.
Unlike last year and most of the past decade, the Green Wave defense showed up when it was needed most. Tulane forced six turnovers, its most since a win over Army on Sept. 20, 2003, by nabbing four interceptions and recovering two fumbles.
It forced fumbles twice when backed up to its goal line. It handed newly minted quarterback Nick Montana a series of short fields to work with as the Green Wave moved to 11-0 against Football Championship Subdivision opponents.
“It definitely (energized us),” senior receiver Ryan Grant said. “I really like our defensive scheme this year.”
Tulane caught its biggest break when Jackson State’s 2012 starting quarterback, Clayton Moore, was sidelined with an injury suffered in preseason practice and his backup, LaMontiez Ivy, was carted off the field in the third quarter, giving way to Evan Ingram.
“I would like to see our front play a little bit better at stopping the run,” Johnson said. “I need a pass rusher, and I’d like to see us rush the passer better with a four-man front.”
Still, for a Tulane defense that allowed 38.4 points per game a year ago, holding Jackson State scoreless until the final five minutes was a welcome sign.
The Green Wave defense made its mark early when Lorenzo Doss wasted no time matching his preseason hype. The All-Conference USA selection snagged an interception on the opening drive and returned it 24 yards, setting up the Green Wave offense at the Jackson State 17-yard line.
But Tulane couldn’t punch it in despite running inside the 5-yard line. Montana was sacked and threw an incompletion inside the 10-yard line, forcing the Green Wave to settle for a 22-yard Cairo Santos field goal.
It didn’t take long for Montana to make amends, connecting with a leaping Ryan Grant for a 49-yard gain on the ensuing possession. Grant’s acrobatic catch — on top of JSU cornerback Joe Perry’s head — set up Darkwa’s 5-yard touchdown run. It was Montana’s first Tulane highlight en route to his 6-of-14, 144-yard, two touchdown performance.
“As he goes on, getting his feet a little bit more, I think he’ll be better,” Johnson said. “He missed a couple of throws that I definitely thought he had, but a couple of times he ran out of trouble. He was very effective on a couple of deep balls.”
Tulane’s first-quarter dominance was punctuated two plays later when linebacker Kyle Davis intercepted Ivy inside JSU territory. Yet again the Green Wave relied on Santos to tally points, this time via a 34-yard field goal, putting Tulane in front 13-0.
Twice in the second quarter, it appeared the Tigers were ready to pull back into contention, methodically driving within the Green Wave 5-yard line. But a trio of forced fumbles and pair of recoveries provided the Green Wave with a surge instead.
In between JSU blunders, Montana flashed his strengths, first using his elusiveness to convert third-and-7 by scrambling for 10 yards before finding receiver Justyn Shackleford in the end zone on a 14-yard touchdown, capping a 10-play, 73-yard drive.
The lead didn’t stretch out of reach until late in the third quarter, when the offense took full advantage of Jordan Sullen’s interception at the JSU 47-yard line. Seven plays later, Darkwa plunged into the end zone from a yard away, earning the Green Wave a 27-0 advantage.
The Green Wave track team’s best high-jumper, receiver Devon Breaux, capped Tulane’s scoring and displayed his leaping ability by skying over FCS second-team all-American cornerback Qua Cox in the end zone to pull down an 11-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown.
“(Breaux and Grant) made awesome plays tonight,” Montana said. “When you have guys like that it, helps me out and just makes everything a lot easier.”