Lewis: A victory and another step forward for Tulane

Tulane President Scott Cowen is fond of pointing out that the Green Wave was undefeated in his first year on the job.

Now, 15 years later, the retiring Cowen would like to go out the same way.

Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But certainly a 34-7 victory against Jackson State on Thursday in the season opener of their final season in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome has the Greenies’ hearts beating a little faster.

“This is the best post-Katrina team we’ve had,” Cowen said as he stood on the sideline instead of watching from a suite. “Look at the speed, the size, the coaching, everything.

“It’s a vast improvement over last year. And I think it’s the start of a lot of good ones ahead of us.”

The announced crowd of 20,992, which included a goodly number of Tulane students who have been notorious for being one-and-done when it comes to repeat visits to the Dome, would have to agree.

The Wave was aggressive on defense, coming up with six turnovers (two fumble recoveries and four interceptions); it wasn’t afraid to run the ball (108 first-half yards and 143 for the game by a team that averaged a next-to-last-in-the-country 39.6 in 2012); and it looked far more organized in its first outing than second-year coach Curtis Johnson acknowledges he had his team last year.

To be sure, this was Jackson State that Tulane was playing. But if Oregon can open with Nicholls State, there’s no shame in the Wave opening with a SWAC team.

Also, it’s worth noting in two openers against FCS foe Southeastern Louisiana in 2010 and ’11, the Wave won by six and 14 points and gave up 54 to the Lions in those two games. On Thursday, Tulane won by 27 and gave up seven, its fewest points yielded in a game since a 41-7 victory against Southern in 2001.

For a program that had gone 23-73 since Katrina, this was a major confidence boost, even though it’s a certainty Johnson will not let his players celebrate past Friday morning.

“You can see how Curtis and his staff have recruited well and then taken these young kids and coached them up,” said Cowen, a former offensive lineman at UConn. “That little linebacker (Nico) Marley is running all over the field, and I can’t believe the size of our defensive linemen. And winning like this only builds confidence.”

Some other observations:

Quarterback Nate Montana played more like Hannah Montana than his father, Joe, twice fumbling on third down in the red zone to turn touchdown opportunities into field goals. Montana was only 3-for-8 in the first half and 6-for-14 for the game, albeit with two touchdowns.

Cairo Santos is money in the bank. The 2012 Lou Groza winner delivered on two field goals and three extra points, running his streak of made kicks to 51 (21 FG, 30 PAT). Santos’ last miss was a blocked extra point in last year’s opener against Rutgers, 363 days ago.

Ryan Grant is dependable as ever. He made Montana look good on a diving catch for a 49-yard gain in the first quarter.

Orleans Darkwa — finally healthy — knows how to break tackles. And with improved blocking from the likes of freshman guard Chris Taylor and redshirt freshman guard Nathan Shienle, there should be more room between the tackles than existed a year ago.

Marley, a true freshman, and sophomore Darion Moore caused fumbles near the goal line that resulted in Tulane recoveries. The Wave, minus-nine in turnovers last year, is starting this year plus-five.

Not surprisingly, Jackson State won the battle of the bands. The best thing the Tulane could have done was to have yielded its eight minutes at halftime (to six for Jackson State).

The crowd was a good one by recent Tulane standards and, as Cowen pointed out, will look a lot better year in 25,000-or-thereabouts-seat Yulman Stadium.

“We’ve rarely seen this many students here,” Cowen said. “And tonight we gave them a reason to come back again.”