Tulane wins Cotton Bowl on miracle ending

Mark Keplinger, Sports Editor

Down 45-39 with only 3:20 on the clock, Tulane’s Green Wave needed a miracle to finish off their dream season.

Facing the tenth-ranked Southern California Trojans in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic in Arlington, Texas, the No. 16 Green Wave did not disappoint, securing a last-second victory in a game that will be remembered as an all-time classic. 

Star quarterback and winner of the Heisman Trophy, Caleb Williams, led the Trojans. He showed early and often why he is the best player in all of college football this season.

Williams mesmerized the crowd with a Cotton Bowl record of five passing touchdowns, keeping the Trojans from punting the entire game. He also threw for 462 yards on 37-52 passing with one interception. He left Tulane defenders in the dust, making incredible throws which were often on the run as he extended plays.

Tulane players and coaches praised the USC signal caller. Defensive lineman Patrick Jenkins agreed that it kind of felt like he was chasing a ghost. Defensive back Jarius Monroe said, “He’s a generation talent. I think he’s going to be the first pick of the draft next year.” 

USC started the game by engineering a long 9:02, 75-yard, 17-play drive, capped off with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Williams to Michael Jackson III. After a Tulane punt, the Trojans again marched 95 yards and scored — this time Williams found Terrell Bynum for a 3-yard touchdown pass.

Down 14-0, Tulane turned to star running back Tyjae Spears to salvage the situation. Spears was not only instrumental, but also impressive, in yet another game, rushing for 205 yards and four touchdowns. He shined even in his lone reception, evading one defender to pick up 14 yards. The next play, Spears plunged in for a 3-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to 7 points.

On the next possession, Jarius Monroe intercepted Williams after undercutting the receiver, and two plays later, Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt hit Jha’Quan Jackson on a slant route who then darted his way for an 87-yard touchdown catch and run, tying the game.  

However, the Trojans ended the half strong with two consecutive touchdown drives. First, Raleek Brown hit a big hole for a 39-yard rushing touchdown. After a Tulane three-and-out, Williams drove down the field and hit Brendan Rice for a 2-yard touchdown pass, giving USC a 28-14 lead going into halftime.

Tulane received the second half kickoff, and it was Spears who led them to a touchdown. After breaking off a 47-yard run earlier in the drive, Spears scored on a 7-yard run. 

On the following possession, Tulane was finally able to stop the high powered Trojan offense who missed a 52-yard field goal attempt. The Wave managed to convert their field goal attempt on the subsequent drive when Valentino Ambrosio split the uprights from 42 yards away. 

But the Trojans would not stay down long. USC drove 97 yards in five plays, thanks in large part to a 74-yard catch and run by Rice. Three plays later, Rice caught a 19-yard touchdown pass from Williams.

Tulane quickly responded with yet another long run by Spears — this time 62 yards. Two plays later, Spears punched in from 3 yards. Tulane’s 2-point conversion attempt failed, and the Wave’s surprise onside kick attempt was recovered by the Trojans.

USC began the fourth quarter up 35-30 but extended their lead by a touchdown when Williams hit Kyron Hudson for a 4-yard score. Things got worse for Tulane when Spears fumbled the ball after a hit from Mekhi Blackmon. All hope seemed lost. With just over 10 minutes remaining and the Trojans looking unstoppable, it looked like the Heisman winner would add Cotton Bowl champion to his resume. 

The Trojans drove and took 6:16 off the clock, but the Green Wave defense came up with a stop, forcing USC to convert a 43-yard field goal attempt. With 4:23 left in the game, Tulane trailed 45-30. 

The Green Wave, however, would begin the most incredible comeback in its storied football history. First, Pratt hit Duece Watts on a slant who broke free for a 59-yard gain. On the next play, Spears scored his fourth touchdown of the day when he ran in from 4 yards out, cutting the Trojans advantage down to 8 in a drive that took just 16 seconds. 

Head coach Willie Fritz decided against trying another onside kick, and, fortunately, USC return man Mario Williams fumbled the catch out of bounds, pinning USC at their own 1-yard line. The Green Wave’s Patrick Jenkins tackled USC running back Austin Jones for a safety in the backfield on Jones’ second attempt to get the Trojans out of their own end zone.

With all the momentum, Tulane received the ball at their own 34-yard line with 3:13 left on the clock, down 45-39. Tulane’s final assault started poorly when Pratt was sacked for an 11-yard loss. Spears gained back 10 on a rush, and Pratt scrambled for another 5, but Tulane faced a fourth and six with their season on the line.

“[What was going through my mind was] the opportunity and the stakes at hand. Fourth down is kind of hit or miss … If you were to ask us before the game if we had one more drive to go down and win the ballgame, we would have taken that 10 out of 10 times,” Pratt said after the game.

The quarterback scrambled for 8 yards, marking a moment of redemption. Pratt continued: “It was kind of similar to the Oklahoma game last year where we had that opportunity to march down the field and score at the end of the game. And it was a fourth and 12 that I ran and was about two feet away from getting the first down on that final drive. So kind of having that same experience and being able to finally do it was awesome.”

The Green Wave still had 54 yards to go with 1:08 left in the game and no timeouts. Again, Pratt was sacked for a 4-yard loss but was able to gain back the lost yards on a short completion to Reggie Brown. After an incomplete pass, Pratt found himself in another fourth and 10 situation. After moving out of the pocket, Pratt threw across his body on the move to a wide open Alex Bauman for a 24-yard gain.

After a spike, Pratt hit Watts on a seam route which set up Tulane at the USC 7-yard line. However, Watts took a helmet-to-helmet hit on the play which injured both him and the defender Bryson Shaw. After an incompletion and with less than 20 seconds to go, Pratt found Bauman in the end zone for the most important catch of the season — and possibly in Tulane football’s history — with under 10 seconds left to play. It was just Bauman’s eighth catch of the year.

The play was initially ruled incomplete but was overturned after video review. “I know the replay did show it, but not everyone was convinced. But yeah, it all goes back to my teammates, my coaches just having trust in me to make a play. And that’s what happened,” Bauman said about the play.

Backed to their own 11-yard line with two seconds left in the game, USC could not score on their desperation laterals attempt, and Tulane emerged victorious. Amidst the confetti, and in front of a raucous crowd of 55,329 people — most of whom wore green — Tulane was presented with the Field Scovell Trophy. 

For his performance, Spears won the J. Curtis Sanford Trophy for offensive most valuable player while Tulane linebacker Dorian Williams earned the Felix McKnight Trophy for defensive most valuable player for his 17-tackle game.

Coach Fritz said afterwards, “I’m still trying to soak it all in right now. It was an outstanding job … It’s a huge win for the program. Huge win for the university. Huge win for the city. We represent New Orleans. We represent Tulane University. We represent our football program. … I’m just very proud to be a part of it.”

Tulane football ended an historic season with a miraculous 46-45 victory in a game both Tulane and college football fans alike will never forget. Following a 2021 season where the team limped to a 2-10 finish, the Green Wave turned around to finish 12-2 as one of the best teams in the nation. Led by their stars, a veteran senior class and a great coaching staff, Tulane has put together a season for the ages, capped off in Arlington with a victory like no other.

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