Of Ponies and Pitfalls: A Retelling of the Tulane-SMU Series
The Green Wave has a chance to be the nightmare for once
Happy Thanksgiving, Greenies. Hope everyone had a great holiday. Tulane travels to Dallas on Saturday for a 3 PM (central) matchup with the SMU Mustangs. ESPNU will be televising it.
Tulane is a slight underdog in this one (SMU -3.5) according to the Gamblin’ Lines but ESPN’s Bill Connelly projects a dead heat with a 31-31 prediction in his spreadsheet.
Suffice it to say, both of these teams have been capable of playing great football but also finished short of where fans may have hoped they would be by the end of the season. Once upon a time, with SMU ranked and Tulane on the cusp of being ranked, there was some somewhat not crazy Twitter discussion as to whether this could be a College Gameday matchup.
While that wasn’t the case, both of these teams have a lot left to play for:
Tulane has lost 4 of its last 5, including 3-point losses to Navy and UCF during that stretch to fall from 5-1 to 6-5
SMU has been boxed out of the AAC West race but is playing for a 10-win season as they defend a 9-2 record at home
I found that last one interesting… in the history of this AAC matchup, I can summarize it pretty quickly: Tulane is often trying to achieve something when these two teams play, and SMU has been the boogeyman every single time. And usually in devastating fashion! I’ll get to that in a moment.
While some local hot take-ry suggests Tulane should turn down a bowl bid if they lose this game (I am still laughing at that proposition…), the reality here is that making back-to-back bowl games when you have not done that since 1979 and 1980 is a legitimate and undeniable statement of progress.
The question then is how much progress have you made? What SMU presents is another serious test of the caliber of UCF and Navy that have led to disappointments. A signature win that has been beyond our grasp throughout the 2019 season.
If Tulane can turn the tide on this SMU series, it will be a notable win even if SMU is no longer in the Top 25. It will mean beating a potential 10-win team in their house and breaking with five years of brutal disappointments. It will mean preventing another team from achieving its history, for once.
This is a big one. Get Angry. So with that, I wanted to take a trip down memory lane with y’all to remember how the Tulane-SMU games (where the Wave has gone 0-5) have played out since the start of the American Athletic Conference.
2015: A 2-9 SMU Drubs Tulane
Our story begins with the very first meeting between Tulane and SMU in the AAC. It came in the midst in the final season of the Curtis Johnson era, which was quickly coming to a close with several somewhat memorable clunkers.
For example, on Nov. 7, the Greenies were eliminated from bowl season in “The Game to End All Games” against UConn on Homecoming. The Huskies would win 7-3 in a cold, terrible night in Yulman when there were no offensive touchdowns for either party but a pick six was enough to do the trick. That was fun.
So by Nov. 21, Tulane’s offensive struggles were in full force when the Mustangs - a dreadful 2-9 at the time - rolled through the Greenies 49-21 for their first conference win of the year. Tanner Lee, who would later be drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, threw for 103 yards and an interception. We were outgained 518-310 yards as a struggling Mustangs program managed to run the Greenies off the field. Bad times, for sure, but things would get more interesting…
2016: The Horror of Homecoming
Fast forward to 2016, and we were under the first year of our fearless leader Willie Fritz. Tulane was playing a more competitive brand of football but certainly working through a new system and roster turnover.
Nevertheless, at 3-4, the Greenies still had a theoretical chance of going bowling with a strong finish. The Mustangs came to Yulman for Homecoming that year.
While Tulane trailed at the half, the Greenies rumbled back in the third quarter with two touchdowns from Glen Cuiellette to Terren Encalade.
Now leading 24-21, the Greenies started to separate with a Sherman Badie TD to establish a 10-point lead with just 10 minutes left in the ballgame. ESPN rated this moment as a near certainty of victory for the good guys:
So what happened? SMU responded with a 10-play touchdown to get back in striking distance for the go ahead score. The Greenies weren’t done though, after all. With a three point lead, we assembled a drive that took Tulane to the SMU 22 but faced a 4th and 2. With just a 3-point lead, Tulane went for it since a FG did zilch and was stuffed.
Mustangs’ QB Ben Hicks then engineered another touchdown drive to put SMU ahead with 1:10 remaining, and SMU would hold on to win 35-31. Tulane would lose three consecutive games after this letdown.
2017: Banks Was In
The 2017 Campaign, which was Fritz’s second season in Uptown, was a pretty wild one from start to finish. Tulane lost an early season bout in the Trident Trophy 23-21 to Navy but delivered nice wins against Army and rolled through Tulsa.
A midseason slide would see four straight losses to FIU (shout out to DJ M Dot), #16 USF, #24 Memphis, and a Homecoming 17-16 loss to a non-operational Cincinnati.
That said, a theme from Fritz teams has been a certain ability to deliver with their backs against the wall. This is the climate in which things took a Greenie turn.
Tulane would beat ECU 31-24 in Overtime in Greenville to move to 4-6… but bowl eligibility would require beating Houston and SMU. So of course, the Greenies managed to shock D’Eriq King and the Cougars for the first time to set up a final week battle royale for a bowl spot.
All eyes turned to Dallas for the final game of the season against a bowl-eligible SMU at Gerald Ford Stadium — which interestingly, is not named for that Gerald Ford…
SMU took an early lead with a 27-14 advantage by midway through the second quarter. The Mustangs boasted one of the league’s top offenses, backed by NFL draft picks Courtland Sutton and Trey Quinn.
Tulane took its first lead with 9:57 left in the third quarter as a young Darnell Mooney hauled in a Banks’ TD to put the Greenies up 28-27.
As you can see, Tulane was expected to win throughout the second half until… SMU’s Ben Hicks hit Trey Quinn for a go-ahead score with 2:07 remaining. Trailing 41-38, Banks had one last shot to get the Greenies into bowl season.
The Wave worked its way to a first and goal with seconds remaining, helped by a couple of pass interference calls. And then a moment that would life in infamy took place.
Banks kept the ball and had a hole, as he takes a hit from a Mustang around the two yard line. He kept moving forward and finishes with his whole body in the end zone. John Leglue raises his hands to the heavens to signal a touchdown. I am freaking out. (Video here).
Then comes the review…
With this game being on CBS Sports, there were just two angles to review the play which had ruled that Banks was down prior to breaking the plane.
The College Football world largely agreed that #BanksWasIn, a rallying cry that would carry over in our fanbase into the 2018 season. SMU would later release video from their team that they suggested definitively confirmed Banks’ knee was down.
Either way, Tulane finished in 2017 at 5-7 by the thinnest of margins.
2018: Another Year, Another Comeback
Last year’s edition, which took place in New Orleans, does not carry the pain of 2017 but was another brutal comeback for the Ponies.
Tulane led this one from a safety to end the first quarter (2-0 Tulane) all the way until the fourth quarter when SMU closed the gap to make it 23-21 Tulane with 11:29 remaining in the ballgame. And for good measure, here’s one more win expectancy chart showing yet again how likely it was for a team, in a vacuum, to win this game…
After that Mustangs’ effort to close the gap in the fourth, Tulane would proceed to:
Punt (three and out)
Fumble (strip sack on Banks)
Punt (three and out)
Punt (three and out)
SMU then scored the go ahead TD with a 67-yard bomb with 1:15 remaining…
Fumble (strip sack on Banks)
This would be the final start for Banks who would turn the keys over to Justin McMillan, which produced a run that carried the Greenies to bowl season.
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As you can see above, Tulane is due.
We’ll be covering the game on Twitter tomorrow, so as always, stay angry my friends. #RollWave