Riptide’s Reflections | The Especially Tragic Special Teams

Jeremy Rosen and Mark Keplinger

Parker Waters

Riptide’s Reflections is The Tulane Hullabaloo’s weekly column talking all things Tulane football. Join us every Wednesday for in-depth coverage, analysis and opinion of the Green Wave.

Just from glancing at the stat sheet from the last game against Southern Mississippi, it makes no sense how Tulane could have lost that match. They had nearly 200 more yards of total offense than the Golden Eagles. They punted the ball three times as opposed to five times. The Green Wave had the best overall player on the field in Tyjae Spears, who had 184 yards of total offense and scored two touchdowns.

Yet after all of that, Tulane lost 24-27 at home in the most anticipated matchup of the season so far. The disappointment largely came from the part of football the average fan thinks about the least: the special teams. The unfortunate reality of the sport is that kicking and punting units aren’t given much attention unless they play extraordinarily well or extraordinarily poorly. And in this game, the special teams unit had enough glaringly bad moments that made a good game go wrong so quickly. 

The first rough moment came near the end of the second quarter, after Michael Pratt took a nine-yard sack that forced the Tulane offense to punt on fourth down. When punter Casey Glover got the ball snapped to him for the punt, Southern Miss safety Jay Jones easily sped past the blockers and swatted the ball out of the air. His teammate was able to fall on the ball five yards behind the line of scrimmage, giving their offense an extremely short field to work with.

The Tulane punting unit was clearly surprised by the blitz that Southern Miss sent out. The Golden Eagles sent out five defenders straight at the ball, while the Green Wave only had three blockers ready to protect Glover. Not only did this play give Southern Miss a short field to get the easy field goal, but it was also a strong momentum shift that demoralized the team going into the second half.

Early in the third quarter, the Tulane defense forced a three-and-out with strong pass defense. When Southern Miss punted the ball away, punt returner Jha’quan Jackson fumbled the ball away immediately after catching it. The ball was almost scooped up by a Southern Miss player, but corner Killand Harrison managed to dive on top of the ball before the situation got any worse. 

After avoiding disaster, the offense slowly marched their way down the field with quick passes by Pratt and strong rushes by Spears. Eventually on a third-and-eight on Southern Miss’s 29-yard line, Spears would get stuffed on an attempted run down the middle. Coach Willie Fritz sent out Kriston Esnard and the field goal unit to try a 47 yard field goal attempt.

Esnard made two field goals in the first three games and made an easy 28-yard field goal before at the end of the first half. However, this 47-yard attempt is by far the longest the redshirt freshman has tried in his college career. He was also only responsible for kickoffs last season, which made this moment completely uncharted territory. Esnard tried his best to launch the ball towards the goal posts, but the kick was a few yards too short and wide to the left. 

The next field goal attempt would be even more brutal. After the defense gave up a deep touchdown, the score was tied at 17 points heading into the fourth quarter. The offense went on a grueling five minute drive to move down the field. They were able to move far enough down the field to get to the Golden Eagle’s 20 yard line, and set up a much more manageable 37-yarder for Esnard.

In this pivotal moment, the special teams blockers let a defender slip through the cracks again. Southern Miss cornerback Natrone Brooks came out from the right edge and dove in front of Esnard as he kicked the ball. The ball bounced back towards the sideline as a Southern Miss player jumped on the ball 22 yards behind the line of scrimmage. 

While this was obviously a terrible outcome for the Green Wave as they lost the chance to take the lead, it had a more devastating effect on the team’s psyche. The momentum had clearly shifted, and the Southern Miss team and visiting fans grew rowdier and more confident. They would get a field goal on their next drive to take the lead. 

Obviously the loss can’t be entirely pinned on the special teams. After all, Pratt threw an interception that got returned for a 35 yard touchdown on a critical drive. The offensive line also needs to improve, as Pratt also took four sacks throughout the game. However, the little errors on special teams added up quickly and turned a game that shouldn’t have been particularly close into a three point loss. If Esnard’s field goal wasn’t blocked before, the score could have been tied and Tulane wouldn’t have had to rely on a desperate onside kick to stay in the game. There simply isn’t an excuse for letting two kicks get blocked like that in a single game. 

This is a culture and coaching issue that needs to be resolved if the Green Wave is going to get back to form like the first three games. Head Coach Fritz and Special Teams Coordinator Robby Discher need to instill an energetic and disciplined culture on every kick and punt if they don’t want to make the same mistakes again.