Tulane faces ‘a defining week’ at ULM

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Tulane cornerback Jordan Sullen, right, runs after wide receiver Ryan Grant during August practice in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Tulane cornerback Jordan Sullen, right, runs after wide receiver Ryan Grant during August practice in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The record says it all.

Just stating Tulane’s 2-2 start causes Jordan Sullen’s eyes to tighten and jaw to clench.

The Green Wave’s senior cornerback has been here too often to underestimate its significance. Four times in the past five years, Tulane stood at this exact crossroads before inevitably crumbling in the final two-thirds of the season.

Each year, the downward pivot started in the fifth game and ended with an avalanche of devastating defeats. Tulane’s opportunity to reverse the trend comes at 6 p.m. Saturday in Malone Stadium when UL-Monroe hosts the Green Wave.

Both Tulane and the Warhawks (2-2) are coming off road blowout losses to power conference opponents. Baylor rung up a 70-7 beating of ULM; Syracuse pounded Tulane 52-17.

But, to Sullen and many of the other seniors, the battle this weekend is deeper than just bouncing back from a loss. It’s about shedding the tarnished label associated with Tulane football this decade.

“I think this week is exactly what we’ve been preaching about as a program, and this is a chance to show ourselves and everyone else that this is different,” Sullen said. “After that Syracuse loss, everyone says, ‘Oh, same old Tulane. This is what they do.’ This is really a defining week for us because we have a chance to change everything that’s happened over the past five years and turn Tulane into what we want it to be.”

From 2008 to ’11, Tulane started each season with two wins and two losses before being blown out by a combined score of 161-52 (once by Marshall and three times by Army). Following the fifth-game defeats, the Green Wave’s combined record careened to a woeful 3-26.

Those skids cost former coach Bob Toledo his job midway through the 2011 season. And current coach Curtis Johnson’s 2-10 record in 2012 never even had a chance to get to the 2-2 point; his first season was a struggle from start to finish.

“We just can’t show any signs of giving up, because that’s the old Tulane,” Sullen said. “Back in the day, you had over 50 percent of the team ready to give up. This is only Week 5. We took a bad loss, but there’s no need to panic.

“I’ve been in this position so many times, but the difference is, I know this year that the two wins we have aren’t going to be our only two wins. ... It’s hard to think about losing eight straight games. I know for a fact we aren’t going to lose eight games straight.”

To fulfill the prophecy, Sullen and the rest of the Green Wave will need to drastically cut down on the mistakes that plagued them in losses to South Alabama and Syracuse. Two blocked kicks, a blocked field goal, a muffed punt return, a dropped touchdown and a dropped interception created at least a 24-point swing in the first half alone last week.

Whether the mistakes were mental or physical is unimportant to senior receiver Ryan Grant. Like Sullen, he signed with the Green Wave in 2009 and experienced the hangover a critical loss can saddle on a locker room. He also played through last season’s 63-10 loss to ULM and recognizes the strides Tulane’s roster has made since.

“I’m not a guy who says a lot,” Grant said. “But it’s important for me to keep my head up and keep practicing just as hard as I did on the first day of camp. It’s about being consistent, and if we don’t show any signs of giving in, then nobody else on the team will.”

Sullen said Grant’s determination and production — Conference USA’s receiving leader at 104.5 yards per game, 31 catches and three touchdowns — is an example of how Tulane’s elder statesmen are prepared to fight off the fifth-game curse.

“We just have guys willing to go the extra mile now,” Sullen said. “Back then, we didn’t have senior leadership, honestly. I don’t mean any disrespect to the coaching staff, because they didn’t have anything to do with it, but most of those guys were giving up.

“And once younger guys start to see those older guys giving up, it’s hard to really care about it. It kind of just spread like cancer on this team. Even with those losses we’ve had, I’m confident we haven’t gone down that road.”