The Green Wave:
The mascot sorta describes how Tulane football has been since Chris Scelfo took over, with the Wave rising and falling year-by-year. This cycle would seem to indicate 2004 (like 2000 and '02) should be a winning season. But it will take more than a historic trend for Tulane to improve on the 5-7 result of last fall. Losing quarterback J.P. Losmann and runner/receiver Mewelde Moore mean the offense is missing most of the firepower, and the defense might not be up to carrying the load until new stars emerge. Still Scelfo has managed to keep Tulane competitive. Though starting just his sixth season, he will have the longest tenure of any TU coach in four decades, already ranks seventh in program career victories, and is the only Wave coach with a pair of bowl victories to his credit. Now, if only he can pull off consecutive winning seasons, Scelfo will have turned a real corner down in New Orleans.
The names do change, yet every time Tulane loses a quality quarterback—think Shawn King, Patrick Ramsey, and Losmann—another talented triggerman steps in and take over. The competition this pre-season has been tighter but it appears Lester Ricard has won the opening-day job. Ricard is a transfer from LSU and a former PARADE All-American from Amite High. He joined the roster only last spring so is still new to the system. Nick Cannon and Richard Irvin are listed as co-#2s, but any way you look at it the Green Wave quarterback really is, well, green. Yet the learning curve ought to be flattened greatly by having an otherwised veteran lineup around the play-caller. All five starting offensive linemen are back, and since four are juniors and one, right tackle Jimmy Kosienski, a senior, it is a proven bunch of blockers with 95 starts among them. All of them redshirted early on, too, so this might be one of the nation's most experienced fronts. They won't have to block long if Roydell Williams gets loose in the State secondary. He caught 66 balls for 1,066 yards as an All-CUSA junior and will be the go-to guy this year. But the Dogs have to also keep an eye on Chris Bush coming out of the slot, and there are is one more senior target, Carl Davis. Whether or not Tulane uses the third and fourth receiver sets depends on if junior Jovan Jackson can establish a running threat. He did show some flair when replacing a hurt Moore last year. Tight end Bobby Hoover was a 2002 starter and missed '03 with injury. In TU's schemes the tight end and fullback can be interchanged, so this is an offense with lots of versatility…a major test for a Dog defense with bitter memories to expunge from last fall.
Tulane had no lack of hard luck on defense last season, with injuries crippling an already suspect outfit. The same four-man line never started consecutive games. Some of the casualties are back and healthy for 2004, and Scelfo made a serious effort to sign up new talent on this side of the ball. Particularly on the defensive line, with eight freshman inked in one recruiting class. Many of them will play, as the two-deep shows true rookies on the second team at three spots and actually starting at an end. Antonio Harris is the frosh on the front, which has some size in the middle in soph tackle Taurean Brown. So look for teams to continue attacking Tulane right up-front…and for the Wave linebackers to be forced into close-support roles until the line is established. It's an interesting mix of ‘backers, too. WLB Anthony Cannon had 100 total stops as a soph despite some injury issues, and Kelvin Johnson was all-CUSA freshman. But Johnson has been surpassed in camp by senior ‘backer, Blake Barker. The strongside man will be either Antonio Mason or Wesley Heath, or maybe both as the first game plays out. The real strength for Tulane is an aggressive secondary that specializes in creating mistakes by the other team. And there is plenty of depth here, too, making for good camp competition. On one corner, for example, Bruce Youmans led TU in breakups last season but is only second-team behind '03 all-CUSA freshman Israel Route. The other corner is held down by junior Sean Lucas, who had five picks and 102 tackles last fall. SS Tray Boger has over 250 career tackles already, 133 last year, and FS Joey Dawson ranked in the national leaders in caused fumbles. As a unit the TU secondary forced nine fumbles and eight interceptions in 2003, and they're back for more in '04.
The kicking games have to be even better this time around as everybody is a year older. PK Barrett Pepper, who booted the game-winner against State in the Superdome, was a solid rookie and 40-of-45 on PATs. P Chris Beckman had a brilliant freshman year with a 43.5 yard average and was second-team CUSA. The real star of this group is return ace Fred Smith, who opened his career with a 100-yard runback and showed flair on punt returns.
As they say, these schools have a history. LSU is the only foe Tulane has played more than Mississippi State in 110 seasons. These were charter members of both the old SIAA and original SEC, and began playing football against each other in 1901. The series was contested with rare exceptions in New Orleans through 1965. The homefield advantage—or local distractions—helped the Green Wave build an early lead in the series and at one time Tulane was up 16-6-2. Allyn McKeen turned things around in the 1940s and by the time Tulane chose to withdraw from the SEC (a decision deeply regretted ever since) State was catching up with seven wins between 1953 and 1964. The series resumed in 1982 and the Bulldogs won the first five rematches, with another five-game streak from 1989-94. So despite last year's loss in another renewal, State still leads 27-25-2. There have been only ten meetings in Starkville with State leading 8-2. Tulane has not won at Scott Field since 1987. TU Coach Chris Scelfo is 1-0 against State, and his 2003 win was the first by Tulane over any SEC program since 1989.
The Last Time:
Mississippi State was hoping to rebound from an opening-night loss behind an offense that had scored 34 points in the last three quarters against Oregon. The offense did indeed show up in New Orleans and put points on the Superdome scoreboard. But the Bulldog defense was again shredded as Tulane rang up 17 unanswered points in a 31-28 comeback win. It was State's first loss to a Conference USA team in a decade.
Surprisingly for two teams with porus defenses there was no first-quarter scoring. State got on the board at 12:02 of the second period as Brent Smith hit a 31-yard field goal. Tulane immediately answered with a 80-yard drive and touchdown pass from hot pro prospect J.P. Losman. The Wave couldn't convert a Bulldog fumble into more points and State managed to shave the deficit to 7-6 with another Smith kick just before halftime.
The fireworks finally began after intermission when Kevin Fant drove the Dogs 80 yards in seven plays, with Nick Turner running it in from seven yards out at 12:33. Losman regained the lead 14-13 with a Losman touchdown toss, then Fant and Justin Jenkins played throw-and-catch twice for touchdowns on strikes of 24- and 70-yards. That gave the visitors a good-looking 28-14 lead with 14:11 left on the clock.
But Tulane kept poise and put together a 89-yard scoring drive capped by a Losman one-yard flip at 4:50. The Wave got the ball back a minute later and Losman found a target open from 13-yards out for the tying touchdown at 2:29. Then the home team got a gift. On a hard slant-pass Jenkins neither seemed to have control of the ball or a toe on the turf, but the loose ball was called a fumble at the 49-yard line with 1:45 left. Unchallenged catches of 15 and 17 yards set up the game-winning field goal of 32 yards with six seconds left.
The outcome spoiled a career night for Jenkins, with nine catches for 164 yards, and Turner ran up 155 yards of his own. The numbers could not offset the stunning collapse, which set a tone for the rest of State's lost season.
What We Said Then:
"Mississippi State lost its first game of the season because the Bulldogs couldn't get started. The second time out, it was because they couldn't finish."
Tulane defensive coordinator Eric Schumann and Bulldog head coach Sylvester Croom were teammates at Alabama in 1973-74. In 1976 and '77 Croom coached Tide linebackers while Schumann was still playing. Schumann later coached defense four years at Alabama.
Did You Know?
*Both Rockey Felker and Jackie Sherrill opened their MSU coaching careers with wins, in 1986 and '91. But they were exceptions. In the post-WWII years only one State head coach, Darrell Royal in 1954, debuted successfully. Six others opened with a loss and even Bob Tyler began with a tie score. *Though the TV attention is welcome, State has some work to do as far as improving its record on ESPN2. Bulldog teams are only 4-11 on this network with a five-game losing streak.
How They Compare:
Quarterback: even Both teams are starting new faces under center. At least Conner is at home, and has a tested backup in York.
Running Backs: State
Norwood, Reid, and Jones don't have many wins among them yet, but should thrive in this offensive system. TU's Jackson gets his turn in the spotlight with Moore gone.
Offensive Line: Tulane
An all-veteran unit with 15 combined seasons of experience gives Wave a huge edge. Blocking is also State's most suspect offensive squad.
Wave has speed and experience and a big-play man in Williams. Bulldog wideouts are still a question mark, especially with Bivines out.
Defensive Line: State
After three sub-par years the Bulldog front is again to be a strong point. By contrast it is Tulane's weakest defensive link, which is good news for a hurting MSU offensive line.
But it's not much of an edge comparing group-to-group. State's advantage will come from a superior front to play behind.
At least that's how it looks going into the season. Tulane DBs may not cover well but do hit and make things happen. State secondary has to be better under new management; it surely can't be worse.
Unless, that is, young Wave specialists have a football version of the sophomore slump. State can punt, Andrews ought to be able to kick, and coverage will be better.
Surprised? Don't be. While State will have the home field and an electric atmosphere, the Bulldogs are still very much a work in progress with more questions than answers at the moment. Tulane has some real advantages in personnel, too. But the Wave has their own mysteries to worry about, especially at quarterback. Nor do they know exactly what State is going to run.
This may well be a classic first-game, in which whoever makes the fewer mistakes wins. Both teams will have opening-night excitement and nerves in equal shares, but the Bulldogs ought to be the more anxious bunch. Sure, State does have a new coach, new systems, and new life, and it was encouraging to see some smiles in pre-game practices. But don't forget, none of these Bulldogs have won anything yet in their college careers. And believe it, after a tough spring and pre-fall, this team needs something to go well immediately, as a reward for all their hard work. Else a few of ‘em might start to slip into the here-we-go-again mindset. For all sorts of reasons this is a special opening game for State; it's also utterly important to how the first season will play out.