HOUSTON (AP) — After narrowly getting a win over North Texas and its strong offense last week, No. 22 Tulane gets another test Saturday.
The road to another American Athletic Conference championship and New Year’s Six bowl doesn’t get any easier for the Green Wave (6-1, 3-0 AAC), which heads to Houston to play the Rice Owls (4-3, 2-1).
Tulane, which has won five straight, was close to dropping its second game of the season last Saturday after blowing a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter. The Green Wave got a 19-yard touchdown run from Michael Pratt with 2 1/2 minutes left and held on for the 35-28 win over North Texas.
Tulane coach Willie Fritz doesn’t know if there is any benefit to having to grind out the win last week after squandering the lead.
“I do like the fact that we finished and were put in a bad situation and we came out with a win, so that’s good, but you just never know how these games are going to play out,” Fritz said. “You have to play the very best you can and finish the best you can.”
Like North Texas, Rice will present a challenge for Tulane offensively. Rice averages 34 points per game and leads the AAC with just under 320 passing yards per game led by quarterback JT Daniels.
“Rice has an outstanding offense,” Fritz said. “Their quarterback has started at a lot of big schools — USC, Georgia were a couple. He’s really a good, accurate passer. They run a pro-style type offense. They throw the ball very effectively.”
Tulane will present its own challenge on offense. Pratt, who accounted for four touchdowns against the Mean Green, has the ability to throw and pass, and Tulane’s running game has averaged 169 yards a game led by the conference’s leading rusher Makhi Hughes.
Rice coach Mike Bloomgren said playing Tulane is “great opportunity,” but he knows the challenge ahead.
“They are committed to the run game, and they will find ways to run it,” Bloomgren said. “The quarterback is going to run some. He’s more athletic than you think.”
MOVING ON UP
After 18 years in Conference USA, Rice is playing its first season in the American Athletic Conference. Bloomgren has already noticed the difference in competition between the two leagues, with Tulane presenting the toughest test to date.
“This is not the kind of football team we played in our conference last year,” Bloomgren said. “This is a team that looks a lot more like Texas or Houston. This is a talented team from top to bottom. The American is a great conference week in and week out, but this team won the conference last year and you see why.”
Tulane has been able to score this season averaging over 30 points per game, but they haven’t had a huge offensive game yet. However, Pratt thinks Tulane could be close.
“We’re really waiting to have our breakout game,” Pratt said. “I still don’t think we’ve even come close to what we’re capable of yet, and I think we could have put up 50-something points on the board Saturday if we would have played strong in every facet. We’re continuing to build, so I think that game is coming very soon.”
Even though Pratt and Daniels won’t line up across from each other Saturday, the quarterback matchup is one that Bloomgren said will be fun to watch.
Pratt is a dual threat with 191 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns this season in addition to 1,121 passing yards and 12 TDs. For his career, he’s rushed for 1,068 yards and 25 touchdowns and threw for 8,001 yards and 78 scores. Tulane is 5-0 when Pratt starts this season.
Daniels, a graduate transfer, is a pocket passer with a conference-leading 2,173 yards passing and 17 touchdowns this season.
LOST ART OF TACKLING
Tulane missed tackles in the second half against North Texas, which allowed the Green Wave to rally. Fritz said he didn’t know what happened in the second half against North Texas, but Tulane prides themselves on their tackling abilities.
“Sometimes I watch all these games and it’s almost a lost art,” Fritz said. “I call it pulling the trigger. When the ball is thrown in front of you, go get it with your leverage. It’s either your left shoulder or your right shoulder, that’s all there is… we have a bunch of guys that tackle well, but you need the whole team to do it because sooner or later everybody is going to have to tackle.”