Tulane, Nick Montana look for improvement against South Alabama

Nick Montana’s Tulane debut was not exactly the stuff of legend.

The Green Wave will take it, though, with the expectation of more production against South Alabama on Saturday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Montana started slowly and finished 6 of 14 for 144 yards as Tulane beat Jackson State 34-7 last Thursday with a ground-bound approach, running on 43 of 59 plays. Given few chances to air the ball out, he looked hesitant early before tossing a pair of touchdowns.

“It was a solid performance for his first start,” quarterbacks coach Mike Neu said. “There’s a lot of room for improvement, but he did a good job of not turning the ball over, did a good job executing the running game and getting us into the right looks.”

The next step is seeing what Montana can do with more opportunities. Of the 117 Football Bowl Subdivision teams that played on the opening weekend, only five threw fewer passes than Tulane. Only three completed fewer than the seven Montana and backup Devin Powell managed.

Clearly, the largest factor in that low total was the conservative game plan. Coach Curtis Johnson said he wanted to set a tone for the season a year after Tulane averaged less than 40 rushing yards.

But Montana also missed some throws as the Wave produced only 308 yards of offense. He overthrew receivers Justyn Shackleford and Ryan Grant when they were open deep.

“I’d like to have a couple of those go routes back,” Montana said. “I need to give them a chance because they make outstanding plays when they are around the ball. That’s probably the biggest thing I need to improve on.”

Johnson made that priority No. 1 in practice this week.

“It left a bitter taste in my mouth,” he said. “The deep-ball throws to the wide receivers was a thing I came from thinking, ‘Gosh, we’ve got to address this.’ When we got on the (practice field this week), the first thing we were running is deep balls. I’m yelling at them, ‘Deep ball, deep ball, deep ball.’ The receivers are going to be tired this week, but we’ve got to complete those.”

Grant made a spectacular catch for a 49-yard gain that set up a touchdown in the first quarter. Montana’s other contributions were subtler. He scrambled for 10 yards to pick up a first down on third-and-7, triggering a 76-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. He placed the ball where Shackleford and fellow receiver Devon Breaux could catch them on fades for touchdowns.

“I really liked how he took command in the huddle,” Johnson said. “He got us into the right checks. He can ad-lib. He makes our offensive line look better already. He picked up the blitz real well. He’s doing some good things, and he’ll get better and better each week.”

He also avoided any killer mistakes, which South Alabama could not say after losing 22-21 at home to Southern Utah last Thursday. The Jaguars were ahead by eight midway through the fourth quarter when Brandon Bridge, their second quarterback, threw an interception at the South Alabama 43.

Southern Utah capitalized with a touchdown, missed a tying two-point conversion, forced a three-and-out and kicked the winning field goal on the final play.

South Alabama’s Ross Metheny, who played primarily in the first and third quarters against Southern Utah, threw for two touchdowns. Bridge, playing in the second and fourth quarters, ran for a 40-yard score.

The tandem’s success went for naught when Bridge made one bad decision. South Alabama will enter the Superdome on a seven-game losing streak dating to last season, its first as an FBS member.

“This team is going to be desperate, and as (Saints coach) Sean Payton would tell me all the time, the most desperate team usually wins,” Johnson said. “We have to match their intensity, withstand the initial assault and just continue to play our game. If we do that, I think we’ll be fine.”

Better reads by Montana would help, too. His name and his father’s fame may have obscured the fact he was making only his second FBS start. The first came in 2011 at Washington, when he was a redshirt freshman, before he transferred to Mt. San Antonio (Calif.) Junior College for 2012.

Walker in the spotlight

Former Tulane safety Devon Walker, who was paralyzed after suffering a cervical spine fracture against Tulsa last season, will be featured on ESPN’s “College GameDay” on Saturday. The show runs from 9 a.m. to noon.