Tulane wins AAC Championship: Here’s how it happened

Mark Keplinger, Sports Editor

With just under a minute left in the game, Tulane University students had their legs over the railings, ready to jump onto the field. The student section, and the rest of Yulman Stadium, was ready to explode in joy. Their beloved Green Wave was on the verge of securing its first American Athletic Conference Championship. 

Five hours earlier, players from both Tulane and the University of Central Florida Knights took the field to begin warm ups. Despite kickoff not being for another hour, the student section was already close to capacity, buzzing with anticipation.

The quarterback, John Rhys Plumlee, and his Knights started with the ball first but punted shortly after. Earlier in the season, Plumlee ran over the Wave with 176 yards rushing and two touchdowns in a 38-31 win.

When Tulane got the ball, quarterback Michael Pratt drove his team down the field and found Shae Wyatt on a fade route for a 10-yard touchdown pass. On the Green Wave’s next possession, Pratt again engineered a long drive, but the Wave settled for a 27-yard field goal. 

Down by 10 and with little offensive momentum, the Knights were finally able to move the ball, thanks to tough running from bruising running back Isaiah Bowser. However, the Knights failed to convert on fourth and one at the Tulane 23-yard line. 

Luckily for the visitors, Tulane ran four-straight plays and failed to convert their own fourth and one, handing the ball back in prime field position. UCF took full advantage and Xavier Townsend was able to run his way in for a touchdown on a jet sweep.

Tulane quickly answered to restore their ten point lead, starting with running back Tyjae Spears picking up 16 yards on the first play. Three plays later, Pratt threw a screen pass to Lawrence Keys III who was able to evade several defenders en route to a 43-yard touchdown.

Despite a late interception by Pratt, Tulane went into halftime with a 17-7 lead. Late in the half, the Knights made a switch at quarterback by putting Thomas Castellanos in under center, but this did little to increase their offensive effectiveness.

To begin the second half, Spears produced what may be the finest run in his entire career. In his 60-yard touchdown run, he burst through a small seam in the line before slaloming across the field as he avoided defenders and broke tackles. As the receivers blocked downfield, Spears hurdled his own teammate, cutting back into the middle of the field and into the end zone. It was a Sunday-type run on a Saturday night in front of a crowd chanting his name.

UCF were on the ropes by this point of the game as the Knights were only able to prevent a Tulane touchdown on the next possession thanks to a forced fumble by Josh Celiscar on Tulane tight end Will Wallace at the 3-yard line. On the ensuing possession, Castellanos narrowly avoided a safety in what would be his last action of the game. 

UCF made another change at quarterback by putting Plumlee back in the game. The Knights looked noticeably more dynamic, and Plumlee capped off the drive by finding Kobe Hudson for a 17-yard score. At the end of the third quarter, Tulane led 24-14.

Tulane began the fourth quarter with a long touchdown pass. On a run-pass option play, the Knights’ safety were fooled by the fake run which left a wide open Duece Watts to trot in for a 73-yard touchdown catch and run.

UCF did not give up without a fight and used a double pass trick play to respond. On the Tulane 49-yard line, Plumlee threw backwards to RJ Harvey, who proceeded to air out a long strike to Hudson for a touchdown.

On the ensuing drive, Spears fumbled after receiving a short pass from Pratt giving the Knights great field position at the Tulane 30-yard line. Four plays later, Bowser powered his way in from 10 yards out to cut Tulane’s lead down to just 3.

However, the Green Wave would put the game away. Pratt’s short pass to Shae Wyatt resulted in a touchdown after Wyatt was able to evade tacklers en route to the end zone. Pratt also got in on the action after he scampered in from 18-yards out. Combined with several key defensive stops, the Knights’ comeback attempt was stopped well short. 

With ten seconds left, UCF turned the ball over on downs at the Tulane 3-yard line. The Wave was winning 45-28. Pratt took the final kneel down. Some players dropped to their knees while the bench immediately rushed to join them. From the stands, the students hopped down from the stands to join their team — classmates and peers — in celebration. Tulane head coach Willie Fritz was showered in yellow Gatorade. The students took pictures with the players and celebrated with them, and Tyjae Spears was lifted onto the shoulders of the students while chants of “MVP” rang out from the Green Wave faithful. 

Michael Pratt won the game’s Most Outstanding Player award while Nick Anderson won the best defensive player of the game award as well. It was almost certainly Pratt’s best ever game in a Tulane uniform.

Tulane will now play the Southern California Trojans at the Cotton Bowl, which will be held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Jan. 2.

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