Staunch run defense still buoys Tulane

Tulane football coach Curtis Johnson greeted Rice’s 41-24 rout of Marshall in the Conference USA Championship Game on Saturday with a mixture of respect and regret.

The Owls were in the title game only because they held off the Green Wave 17-13 a week earlier at Rice Stadium. Underdogs on their home field, they ripped through the Thundering Herd for 250 yards on the ground after rushing for a season-low 124 yards against Tulane’s sturdy defense.

“Deep down inside, I’m burning,” Johnson said. “I said Marshall would get killed by Rice. (Tulane co-defensive coordinator Lionel Washington) and the guys do a fabulous job defensively. You think back; golly, we had the (touchdown) halfback pass called back (for a holding penalty), a couple of untimely mistakes, just two or three things or we could have won.”

The way the defense has stopped the run all year, Tulane (7-5) can hang with almost anyone. Having shut down Rice’s C-USA-leading ground game, the Wave is turning its attention to New Orleans Bowl opponent Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4), which paced the Sun Belt in rushing (207.6 yards).

The Ragin’ Cajuns may have to find another way to move the ball. Tulane is holding teams to 120 yards per game on the ground, the 16th-lowest total in the nation.

“It’s our speed,” linebacker Zach Davis said. “We’re big about just running to the football and making sure all 11 guys are there at the same time.”

Tulane’s defensive numbers are even more impressive when broken down by average per carry. The Green Wave yields 3.14 yards per rush, its lowest figure this century.

Only nine defenses have allowed a lower average this season: Michigan State, Louisville, Utah State, Stanford, Rutgers, Virginia Tech, Ohio State, Florida State and Cincinnati. Their combined record is 90-23.

Tulane’s record was not as impressive, but the defense still carried the Green Wave to its first winning record and bowl game in 11 years.

“It all starts with having good players,” said Jon Sumrall, Tulane’s defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator. “We have guys that have really bought into what we’re doing and are confident in what their job is. It’s been a priority of ours. You don’t do something by accident. You have to make it intentional, and our guys have really taken ownership preparing for each opponent of what the top plays we have to stop in the running game are.”

A year ago, Tulane allowed 222.9 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry, some of the worst totals in the country. The addition of LSU graduate student transfer Chris Davenport (6-foot-4, 334 pounds) at nose guard made a huge difference in the middle. Holding his ground, he allows everyone around him to make plays — including athletic tackle Julius Warmsley, who has a team-high 151/2 stops for loss.

“Chris takes up space, and Julius is a nightmare for an offensive lineman,” Sumrall said. “He can play nose. He can play (tackle). He can play end. He’s just such a smart guy, a quality guy who plays really hard. He played 70-something snaps against Rice, which is more than we want to play any single guy, but he played at a high level.”

The reaction that the defense received after the loss to Rice testified to Tulane’s defensive dominance.

“The cool thing is speaking to the players afterward and them being like, ‘Dude, y’all are the best defense we’ve faced all year,’ ” Warmsley said. “That was the quarterback to some people. Also a bunch of the linemen were like, ‘Y’all are ridiculous.’ It’s humbling. It brings you up a little bit even after the loss.”

Rested and ready

Tulane practiced four times last week in preparation for the New Orleans Bowl, getting a leg up on UL-Lafayette, which finished its regular season Saturday with a 30-8 loss at South Alabama. Still, Johnson did not see the extra time as a significant advantage.

“They may have a little bit of an advantage over us,” he said. “They’ve played in this game before. They’ve won it two years in a row.”

The focus last week was primarily on the younger players as the coaches let some banged-up starters rest, including quarterback Nick Montana. Johnson said some of the starters would not practice in any of the seven workouts before the Green Wave begins regular game-week preparation Sunday, with others returning earlier.

“I don’t need to see Chris Davenport very much,” he said. “I just need to see him run around and get in shape. I don’t need to see Warmsley very much. Just run around. I don’t need to see (receiver) Ryan Grant run another curl route. I need him to get healthy. I need to see the young guys.”