Tulane defense bats away No. 1 ranking

Tulane coach Curtis Johnson (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
Tulane coach Curtis Johnson (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

When it comes to defensive rankings, Tulane typically can be found near the bottom of the list.

But through five games, the Green Wave (3-2, 1-0 Conference USA) has found lofty status in a couple of categories.

Tulane’s 29 passes defended rank No. 1 nationally, five more than the five schools tied for second — Ohio State, Rice, Virginia, TCU and Texas Tech. Players and coaches point to newfound aggression and a more seasoned defensive backfield for the rapid rise.

They’ll be relying on those traits Saturday when the Green Wave faces C-USA foe North Texas (2-2, 0-0) at 2:30 p.m. in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

In 12 games last year, Tulane broke up just 57 passes, led by departing senior Ryan Travis’ 11. Thus far, four defensive backs are on pace to top that count on their own.

Cornerbacks Jordan Sullen, Lorenzo Doss and Derrick Strozier and safety Sam Scofield each have been credited with five passes defended through five games. Fellow cornerback Jordan Batiste has knocked down four despite missing the first six quarters of the season with a suspension.

“I think it’s about being smart and it’s about aggression,” Sullen said. “It’s about the guy who wants the ball more. I think this year we want it more, and that may not have been the case last year or the year before that. But this year, we want it more because we see what it can do for the rest of our team and the momentum of the game.”

After being picked on as freshmen, Doss and Batiste have grown into reliable man-to-man defenders. And Sullen’s return from a year-long suspension provided the unit with experienced leadership. Coupling their strides with added depth and a boost from the defensive line — which already has racked up 11 sacks after posting 19 all of last season — the Green Wave’s defense has been transformed.

“Last year, we knew those three freshmen were going to be good players, and they are,” coach Curtis Johnson said. “They’re playing outstanding. It also helps that you have a defensive line that is playing really, really well. They’re working on their consistency. What happens is, all of a sudden, the quarterback is getting a little more antsy.

“We’re getting our hands on some balls that we probably shouldn’t. Now it’s time to start intercepting some of those pass breakups. I want to lead the country in that.”

Not that the Green Wave is shabby in that department. Tulane’s nine interceptions are tied for fifth nationally, and they have come from eight different defenders.

It all represents a Tulane defense trying to shed its reputation as a soft unit incapable of slowing its opponents. If it performs up to its current numbers against the Mean Green and its third-ranked passing game in C-USA, the label will diminish even further.

“For years and years and years, I have been preaching about how we have one of the better defensive backfields in the conference,” Sullen said. “Yeah, it took a little time, but things are finally starting to come into focus, and we have some guys back there who are really ball hawks. If we’re not taking the ball out of their hands, then we’re breaking it up.

“Guys aren’t really catching balls on us, and it all starts with the coaching we are getting in practice. We’re taking pride in doing individual drills in practice, and it’s clearly carrying over to the games. It’s on us to keep it going and change the way people think about throwing on Tulane.”

Tailgate tangled

Due to Tropical Storm Karen’s expected landfall this weekend, Tulane has taken measures to ensure the weather won’t interfere with its homecoming festivities before Saturday’s game.

All official tailgating activities on the roof of the Superdome garage have been suspended. To accommodate the change, the St. Charles club lounge will be open at 12:30 p.m. — an hour before its typical opening — to any ticketed fan and will provide a cash bar along with food to purchase.

Tulane said it will not make any changes to the game time, which is still expected to kick off at 2:30 p.m.