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Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans

The Tulane Hullabaloo

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Tulane loses conference championship to SMU 26-14

Tulane fell to SMU in the AAC Championship on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. (Courtesy of Parker Waters — Tulane Athletics)

The odds favored the Green Wave. 

In a blowout win over the United States Naval Academy last saturday, Southern Methodist University’s starting quarterback Preston Stone suffered a broken leg, forcing freshman Kevin Jennings into the starting role. With Tulane University coming off a big win against the University of Texas at San Antonio, Jennings and the Mustangs were the last hurdle the Green Wave had to overcome for back to back American Athletic Conference championships and a New Year’s Six Bowl bid. 

Instead, SMU sacked Michael Pratt seven times and pummeled Tulane like no other team has this season. 

Tulane started the game hopeful. On the first defensive play of the game, Devean Deal sacked the SMU quarterback and forced a fumble, which Tulane recovered at the goal line. Pratt’s 1-yard run put Tulane up 7-0 just 10 seconds into the game. 

The SMU offense shook off the turnover and moved down the field, but the Green Wave defense held on and forced a 40-yard field goal, which SMU missed. SMU required a major defensive stop to keep control of the game, and allowing just 3 yards would give them the ball right back. Starting at midfield, it took only five plays for the SMU offense to go the length of the field, highlighted by a 32-yard completion to Roderick Daniels Jr. 

After watching the SMU offense march down the field, the Tulane offense was unable to replicate their success, only gaining 7 yards on the second straight three-and-out. The SMU offense built on their last drive, moving the ball down to the Tulane 32, but Kam Pedescleaux intercepted Jennings and stopped the SMU drive in its tracks. Pratt found Yulkieth Brown for a 15-yard completion as the first quarter ended, giving the Green Wave offense their first first down of the game. 

That big play did not spark the offense, and Tulane punted the ball away four plays later. SMU was able to move the ball back to around the Tulane 20, but a goal-line interception from Jarius Monroe kept the game tied at 7. Both offenses seemed to stall, going three-and-out on three consecutive drives, which had a yardage total of 9. The SMU offense was able to break through again, with a 10-play, 65-yard touchdown drive highlighted by three third-down conversions of 5-plus yards. 

It seemed that trailing finally got the Green Wave offense rolling, with two straight first downs that brought their total to three on the day. But Tulane stalled again after losing 8 yards to a sack. SMU was content with running out the clock, taking their 14-7 lead into halftime. The Green Wave offense got a first down, but not much after that, and punted the ball back to the SMU offense. 

Fresh off the halftime break, the Green Wave defense forced their second three-and-out of the day. With a fair catch interference penalty against the Mustangs, the offense benefited from an extra 15 yards. The Tulane offense finally broke through on a 42-yard touchdown to Brown on a beautiful play action pass on third and 1, tying the game at 14. 

The Mustangs, facing a top five rushing defense, ran for 40 yards on back-to-back plays, but the defense bounced back and forced SMU into a field goal, taking the lead by 3 points. After scoring their first touchdown since the second play of the game, the offense looked to build momentum and either tie or take the lead. But their continued inability to move the ball against the SMU defense brought the punt team back out three plays later. After a 10-yard rush, the Green Wave defense forced a turnover on fourth down, but a defensive pass interference penalty negated the incompletion and kept the SMU offense on the field with an additional 15 yards. 

On the next play, a facemask penalty on the opposite side of the field gave the Mustangs offense another free 15 yards. A Darius Hodges sack moved the SMU offense back 2 yards, and a defensive stand forced SMU into a field goal, giving the team a 20-14 lead. 

Still only down 1 score, the offense went three-and-out again. A 10-yard punt from punter Will Karoll gave SMU the ball at the Tulane 30, and any score would give the Mustangs a 2-score lead. 

A 16-yard rush on their first play gave SMU great field position, but the Green Wave held SMU to just a 4-yard run and a field goal. With just 8:34 left in the game, Tulane needed to find a way to stay in the game, but was again forced to punt after three plays and just 2 yards. The defense forced another SMU three-and-out, giving Pratt the ball down 9 with under six minutes remaining. 

The Tulane offense continued to play flat, with an unsuccessful running play on third down leading to an interception on fourth. The Mustangs killed another 1:13 off the clock before adding another field goal, extending their lead to 12. 

The SMU defense added its sixth sack of the game, but a 22-yard pass to Alex Bauman kept the drive alive. The Green Wave offense moved all the way down to the 2-yard line with 38 seconds on the clock, but came up empty handed with an incompletion on fourth down, sealing the game. 

Pratt ended the game 21 for 36 for 238 yards, with one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown and an interception. Makhi Hughes, who was named the AAC Rookie of the Year, was only given the ball 11 times for 44 yards. Since Tulane’s victory against Nicholls State University, Hughes has gotten under 20 carries just once, with 19 in the 2-point victory against the University of Tulsa. Brown led the way with five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown, while Chris Brazzell II and Bauman were the only other receivers with over 20 yards — 41 and 36, respectively. The offensive line was unable to hold off the SMU defense, allowing seven total sacks on the day.

Quarterback Michael Pratt jogs off the field to meet head coach Willie Fritz in the AAC Championship on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. Fritz accepted the head coach job in Houston after the game, and it was likely Pratt’s last appearance at Yulman Stadium. (Courtesy of Parker Waters — Tulane Athletics)

On defense, Deal forced the fumble on the first and only sack while Pedescleaux and Monroe added an interception each. Tyler Grubbs led the way with 13 total tackles, and five others registered at least five tackles.

The game was the team’s last with head coach Willie Fritz. The University of Houston announced Sunday morning that Fritz would move there for a head coaching job, and he appeared to grow emotional several times during the postgame on Saturday. 

Tulane said Sunday morning that offensive coordinator Slade Nagle would serve as the Green Wave’s interim head coach. 

On Wednesday Dec. 27, Tulane will play Virginia Tech in the Military Bowl at the United States Naval Academy field in Annapolis, Maryland.

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