2020 Opponent Breakdown: Tulane

Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats will meet Tulane on the football field this fall.

By John Volk

The last time Northwestern and Tulane met on the football field, Dwight Eisenhower was president and IBM had just introduced its first commercial computer hard drive. Now, 64 years later, the Wildcats will welcome the Green Wave back to Ryan Field on September 12, hoping to improve their 1-3 all-time meeting record. The week two matchup will mark the first half of a home-and-home series to be completed in 2025 in New Orleans.

Tulane is coming off an average 2019 season, having finished 7-6 overall and 3-5 in the AAC. A promising start last season saw the Green Wave as the first team out in the Week 7 AP Poll, propelled by a four-game winning streak that featured victories over Houston and Army. It never managed to crack the top-25, however, as a 47-17 loss to Memphis sent Tulane stumbling toward the finish line, losing five of six to end the regular season. A 30-13 win against Southern Miss in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl salvaged back-to-back bowl wins for the program.

That bowl game marked the end of starting quarterback Justin McMillan’s collegiate career, who starred in his two seasons with Tulane after transferring from LSU in 2017. McMillan scored a combined 29 touchdowns in 2019 and his graduation leaves a big hole in the offense. 

His most likely replacement will be redshirt senior Keon Howard, who coincidentally transferred from Southern Miss in 2018. Howard saw limited playing time in 2019, but made it count when he did, throwing for 2 touchdowns and rushing for another with no interceptions in four games. The door is still open for a younger QB to take over, but with Howard’s starting experience and familiarity with Tulane’s system, along with the barriers of a socially distant offseason, it’s all but certain he will take the first snap when the Wave arrives in Evanston.

McMillan also led the Green Wave in rushes, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in 2019, and he was joined in the 2020 graduating class by standout running back Darius Bradwell. Howard’s rushing abilities should replace some of that production, but expect the bulk of Head Coach Willie Fritz’s run-first offense to land on redshirt senior Corey Dauphine. The speedy back has piled up 1,354 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in two seasons for Tulane since transferring from Texas Tech. Despite having 39 fewer carries than Bradwell in 2019, Dauphine put up 91 more yards and five more touchdowns on the ground. He is positioned to shine in 2020.

Tulane’s receiving room lost major players as well after 2019 with the graduation of last year’s two leading receivers, Darnell Mooney and Jalen McCleskey, whose 1,294 receiving yards made up just under half of Tulane’s production through the air. The addition of wide receiver transfers Deuce and Phat Watts will help, but 2020 looks to be a tough year for Greenie receivers.

On the other side of the ball, the Green Wave will be without two key players in the secondary from last year, Thakarius Keyes and P.J. Hall. The safety-cornerback duo earned All-AAC Honorable Mentions in 2019, and their departures leave the team thin in the defensive backfield, particularly at cornerback with only three players listed on the roster at that position.  

Tulane will, however, return its best player on defense in Patrick Johnson. In Tulane’s 3-4 scheme, Johnson is the team’s primary pass rusher and can wreck a game if he’s in peak form. Johnson had a down season in 2019 after putting up 10.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles in 2018, but his efforts last year were still enough to secure All-AAC Second Team honors. With several big departures on defense, the Green Wave needs Johnson to return to form in 2020.

With the loss of veteran stars on both sides of the ball, expect 2020 to be a difficult year for Tulane football. Especially with the preparation time lost to COVID-19, a year already made difficult by turnover becomes that much harder. The success of this team will rest on the shoulders of Howard, Dauphine and Johnson, and if those three don’t play lights-out, a third-straight bowl game may be out of the question.

Score Prediction: Northwestern 17, Tulane 10

Editors Note: This article was published before the Big Ten’s decision to play a conference-only schedule in fall 2020.