SEPTEMBER 10, 2017

Narrow loss to Navy disappointing for Tulane

But signs of progress remain

By Les East

Of course, there is no such thing as a moral victory.

You can look at the standings as closely as you are able and you won't find a column for MV.

But that doesn't mean that teams and programs can't draw significant positive energy and thoughts in the absence of victory.

Case in point is Tulane in its 23-21 loss to Navy on Saturday in Annapolis, Md. For generations the term "moral victory" was used way too often around the Green Wave, being slapped on practically every loss that wasn't an absolute disaster.

But for this team at this stage in the program the performance against the Midshipmen at least validated to some degree the belief that this team is better than last year's and that the program is headed in the right direction, though not necessarily in the fast lane.

The addition of Willie Fritz's first complete recruiting class, featuring talented dual-threat quarterback Jonathan Banks, and the progression from year one to year two under Fritz, who has a track record of guiding programs to significantly greater heights in his second season on the job, suggested Tulane should be better than its 4-8 season in 2016.

The mostly businesslike thumping of Grambling, an FCS program but a good FCS program, in the opener suggested the preseason expectation for improvement wasn't ill founded.

But the step up in class against Navy, one of the premiere programs in the American Athletic Conference, was an opportunity for the Green Wave to show either they were much improved or that all the positive stuff prior to Saturday was fool's gold. Well, the resulting loss shouldn't have pulled the rug out from under anyone wearing olive and blue.

Of course winning is always preferable to losing and losses that are tantalizingly close to being victories, such as this one, can be more hurtful than blowout losses. But even though the final score is the complete verdict as far as the standings go, a performance is more nuanced as a gauge of a team and a program.

On the third play of the game, Tulane gave up a 54-yard run and later it yielded a 52-yard pass that led to a touchdown and a 79-yard scoring pass. But in total it allowed 326 yards.

That shows resiliency and an ability to adjust.

Tulane lost Banks to an undisclosed injury, but Johnathan Brantley stepped in unexpectedly and played well enough to rally the Green Wave within striking distance.

The offense managed just 262 yards, but Brantley ran for 73 yards and a touchdown. He completed 5-of-8 for 58 yards.

He didn't do enough to complete a comeback from a 10-point second-half deficit, but he did do enough to suggest that he's developed to the point that an ongoing absence by Banks -- if it happens -- might not be devastating.

Once Tulane got within the final margin -- which came courtesy of a botched snap that created a safety for the Midshipmen -- it twice failed to convert fourth downs that could have continued a potential game-winning drive.

Finally, the Green Wave were poised to get one last possession, but they had too many men on the field for a Navy punt. The penalty shortened a fourth-and-7 to fourth-and-2 and enticed to Middies to go for it and they converted and ran out the clock.

And that was that.

Tulane wasn't good enough to win Saturday. Plain and simple.

Where this season is headed is uncertain, especially until we know more about Banks' status.

So far there's no reason to think Tulane can't be competitive against its American brethren, though we have to wait two weeks before getting a second opportunity to see the Green Wave face a conference opponent. Tulane hosts Army on Sept. 23.

Next up is a trip to Oklahoma to face the Sooners, who moved up to No. 2 in the country from No. 5 after thumping No. 2 Ohio State 31-16 on the road Saturday.

So this looking-beyond-the-final-score attitude might come in handy for one more week.