Tulane running game awakens

Associated Press photo HEATHER AINSWORTH -- Tulane coach Curtis Johnson watches from the sideline during the Syracuse game Sept. 21. Show caption
Associated Press photo HEATHER AINSWORTH -- Tulane coach Curtis Johnson watches from the sideline during the Syracuse game Sept. 21.

Sometimes, being a smart coach is about knowing when to deviate from a plan. And it takes a mature team to understand it.

For Tulane coach Curtis Johnson, it took a midgame epiphany during the Green Wave’s 31-14 win over Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday to make the change. Rather than sticking to the scripted game plan, which called for a balanced attack, Johnson sensed confidence and saw production coming from the Green Wave’s running game, so he decided to stick with it.

Any semblance of balance was tossed out of the play sheet while the Green Wave (3-2, 1-0 Conference USA) rumbled its way to 253 rushing yards on 53 carries, repeatedly pounding the ULM defense with heavy doses of running backs Orleans Darkwa and Robert Kelley. It was Tulane’s best rushing output since Sept. 17, 2011.

“We were able to control the game and control the clock,” Johnson said. “It’s the first time since I’ve been here that we were able to do that, and it’s a great feeling to know we can do it.”

Tulane will attempt to repeat the feat at 2:30 p.m. Saturday (TV: Cox Sports Television) when it hosts North Texas at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for homecoming. It’s the first of seven consecutive C-USA opponents Tulane will face.

The ability to churn out reliable rushing outputs evaded the Green Wave entirely last year, when it ranked No. 119 nationally in yards per carry (1.8). The success was far from inevitable against the Warhawks, as Tulane entered the game averaging just 2.4 yards per attempt and routinely experienced complications on the offensive line through the season’s first four games.

While the occasional drive yielded positive results early in the season, the level of consistency Tulane attained Saturday was a startling break from expectations.

“I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but it was a much better than it had been,” said Darkwa, who rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns. “It’s not really one adjustment that was made or one big difference, but everything just sort of clicked. We knew we could go out and execute and change the way we do things as an offense, and we accomplished that goal.

“As an offense, I think we showed that we are able to do more than one thing well and showed that we’re not afraid to go with what’s working.”

While the Green Wave’s ground attack chewed up yards and clock, quarterback Nick Montana and the rest of Tulane’s passing game idled, completing just seven of 20 attempts for 65 yards. In doing so, leading receiver Ryan Grant watched his league-leading statistics dip, and the NFL prospect spent the wide majority of the game blocking.

It’s something the senior admitted may have rankled him as a younger player or even last year, but never distracted him from his task of assisting the offense against UL-Monroe, even if he was able to pull in only two catches.

“I felt like I was mature about it, and I was really glad we were able to run the ball,” Grant said. “Sometimes it’s easy to be selfish when we’re running a lot because you feel like you’re not a part of it. But I was all for it, even when (offensive coordinator Eric Price) came to me and said some stuff about being patient, and I just told him if the running is game working, let’s just keep using it and get out of here with a win.”

Johnson said Grant’s attitude was emblematic of the team’s selflessness, which revealed itself as the lopsided play-calling continued without a negative word coming from the bench.

“Sometimes on the sideline you’ll hear ‘I need the ball,’ whether it’s Ryan or someone else,” Johnson said. “But instead, they were coming up to me and asking, ‘Who do I need to block on this play, the corner or the safety?’ So it was the right questions at the right time, and it was good to feel that.”

Now, as Tulane prepares for North Texas, Johnson said he believes he’s been given the gift of flexibility.

No longer can teams place a laser focus on blitzing Montana, because the threat of an explosive running performance is always available. And if Johnson chooses to shake up his plan in the middle of the game, he doesn’t fear losing the confidence of his playmakers.

“What teams were saying prior to this game was that we can’t run it,” Johnson said. “Finally we have some tape out there that shows we can run it. I think being able to balance it out and get continuity in the offensive line is important. We didn’t really simplify anything, we just did the things we are good at.”