It was the 10:46 mark in the fourth quarter.
That’s when the Cotton Bowl seemed to slip out of Tulane’s grasp. USC had just taken possession after recovering a Tyjae Spears fumble and held a 42-30 lead.
Caleb Williams and the Trojans offense seemed to be getting everything they wanted offensively, and I don’t know if there were many that doubted they’d pad their lead while milking some clock. They did, but only by a field goal.
Then came the storm.
Two plays and an extra point later, the Green Wave trailed by only eight with 4:07 to play. A mistake on the ensuing kickoff by a USC returner and a safety two plays later quickly changed the tide.
The rest, as they say, is history. Tulane knocked off the Trojans 46-45 to cap an improbable comeback, and an improbable season.
Besides the fumble, Spears had a career game. He put Tulane on his back for most of the contest, rushing for 204 yards and four touchdowns. He’s since declared for the NFL Draft. Safe to say the junior’s draft stock rose.
Because of Spears’ effectiveness on the ground, Green Wave QB Michael Pratt didn’t need to do much with his arm. Although he passed for 234 yards, that came on a mere eight completions. He only attempted 17 passes.
But Pratt made huge plays down the stretch when he needed to the most, including converting two fourth downs on the final drive — one with his legs and one through the air. This was a glimpse of what Pratt’s season was like. He ranked eighth in the AAC, passing for 231 yards per game while his 27 touchdowns were fourth. He may not have been the most prolific passer throughout the year, but he made plays when it mattered.
He orchestrated two fourth-quarter go-ahead drives against Kansas State and Cincinnati, which resulted in Tulane wins. The win over KSU looks even more impressive now after the Wildcats went on to beat TCU in the Big 12 title game. The win over Cincinnati came when the Bearcats were ranked No. 24. Even more impressive, these victories came on the road. They also knocked off Houston with a third-string QB in Week 5.
Following that win over Houston, the Green Wave went 8-1 through the remainder of the season, losing only to UCF and avenging that loss in the conference title game.
The Green Wave proved they were to be taken seriously early in the season. They ended the season the same way with a 17-point win over UCF in the AAC championship. Voted by the media to finish seventh in the league, Tulane crept up out of nowhere and became the best team in the best Group of Five conference in the country.
Unlike the other top programs in the league, Tulane is staying around.
While UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston depart to the Big 12, the Green Wave enter the season with momentum and now know what it takes to get to where they’re at. Not only this, but they continued to spark hope for the smaller programs. Last year it was Cincinnati in the College Football Playoff. This year it was the Green Wave knocking off the Heisman winner and a premier program in a New Year’s Six game.
Tulane only has four seniors who started on defense, but will be losing key pieces on the offense including Spears and standout receiver Duece Watts. Pratt will return though, and so will Willie Fritz. It took seven seasons with the program, but the coach took Tulane to its first big-time bowl game in 83 years. The Green Wave tied the program record for wins while doing so.
Last time Tulane was in this big of a bowl game, World War II had just started. It’s been a long time coming.
I wrote about the Green Wave clinching their first-ever CFP ranking exactly two months ago. Like others, I questioned whether or not they could win the AAC and pave their own way to the Sugar Bowl.
Tulane proved it could, just like it proved itself all season. Especially Monday afternoon.