NEW ORLEANS — In each of the University of Tulsa’s conference losses, a defining moment has not gone the Hurricane’s way.
In a 38-26 setback Saturday at Tulane that eliminated the possibility of a bowl appearance, momentum slipped away in the blink of an eye as a result of a significant play and was never regained.
“We’ve probably had at least five games that something has affected the game and changed the course of the game and sometimes we’ve had more than one in a game,” TU coach Philip Montgomery said. “My guys work too damn hard (for that to happen). This game’s hard and as hard as our conference is and the level of competition in our conference, every one of those are crucial.”
After coming to life following a 10-0 deficit, the Hurricane took a 13-10 lead late in the second quarter. The Green Wave, a double-digit favorite on homecoming at Yulman Stadium, produced a touchdown drive highlighted by a long catch by Oklahoma State transfer Jalen McCleskey.
On the first play of the next series, quarterback Zach Smith connected with receiver Josh Johnson on what would have been a loss of several yards. Johnson was met immediately by a Tulane defender and quickly lost possession of the ball.
Rather than being ruled an incompletion, the result was a fumble that was recovered and returned for a TD by the Green Wave for a 24-13 advantage. A review upheld the ruling on the field, and the sequence was a devastating development for a team struggling to find success in the last month of the season.
“It’s a huge, huge chain of events,” said Montgomery, who declined to discuss officiating to avoid getting a reprimand and hefty fine from the American Athletic Conference.
The only explanation he received from officials was the ball was coming loose before Johnson fell to the turf. Asked what constitutes a catch, Montgomery said: “You have to maintain possession of the football and make a football move for it to be considered a catch. That is my understanding of it.”
The rest of the Hurricane’s outing was nowhere near flawless. Tulsa (2-7, 0-5 AAC) was ineffective in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on only two of eight trips inside the 20-yard line and relying on four field goals in a bounce-back performance from place-kicker Jacob Rainey.
“We knew they had done a really good job (defensively) in the red zone and we knew it was going to be tough sledding down there,” Montgomery said. “Our run game was not as effective tonight as it’s been in the past and there was a couple times where we just needed to make a better decision down there and play the percentages.”
Smith was mostly sharp when he had enough time to throw, completing 17-of-33 passes for 270 yards and a TD. He was sacked four times and hurried three times but didn’t record a turnover.
“I think we played well as an offense, but we’ve just got to find a way to finish drives,” Smith said. “Like I was telling guys the whole time, ‘Field goals get you beat. We’ve got to pick up our game.’ That’s frustrating when the offense is clicking and we’re driving all the way down the field and we just kind of stall.”
Early in the fourth quarter, the Hurricane had a chance to tie the game after a second interception by Reggie Robinson II, but instead pulled within five on a Rainey field goal. Tulane (6-3, 3-2) responded with a lengthy drive punctuated with a TD on fourth-and-goal, and Tulsa went three-and-out on its last possession.