Nearing the end of its most successful football season in 24 years, No. 18 Tulane will play in its first American Athletic Conference title game when it hosts No. 22 UCF on Saturday in New Orleans.
By beating two-time defending conference champion Cincinnati 27-24 last Saturday, Tulane not only punched its ticket to the championship game but secured home-field advantage. The Green Wave (10-2, 7-1 AAC) also reached double-digit wins for the first time since Tommy Bowden guided them to a 12-0 season in 1998.
The successful run garnered coach Willie Fritz some attention for a Power Five job. Georgia Tech reportedly interviewed Fritz, but on Tuesday afternoon Tulane announced that Fritz informed the school he wasn’t leaving.
“I’m the head football coach at Tulane,” Fritz told reporters Monday. “I’m extremely proud to be the head football coach at Tulane, and we’re looking forward to the ball game on Saturday. That’s what I told our guys when I visited with them (Monday) morning.”
UCF (9-3, 6-2) can take comfort in having won the teams’ regular-season meeting, 38-31 at Tulane on Nov. 12. That day, Knights quarterback John Rhys Plumlee threw for 132 yards and a touchdown but added 176 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries.
But Plumlee left last Saturday’s game due to a lingering hamstring injury, leaving the Knights to turn to backup Mikey Keene at quarterback to finish out a 46-39 shootout win over South Florida. UCF won on Keene’s late touchdown pass to Alec Holler, which Holler brought in with one outstretched hand in the front corner of the end zone.
Keene completed 15 of 19 throws for 129 yards and two touchdowns, after Plumlee had gone 9-for-9 passing with a touchdown and rushed for 133 yards and two scores on just eight attempts.
“Coach (Gus Malzahn) has got some good schemes where a lot of times there’s very similar quarterback run plays that you get, and he does something a little bit different with his quarterback,” Fritz said.
“And then the other young man we played against a year ago, Mikey Keene. He also is not as much a dual threat as Plumlee, but he runs the ball effectively and really throws it. So two very good quarterbacks.”
Malzahn said Plumlee has been feeling better.
“It’s not like something new, and he’s managed it and been able to recover and come back,” Malzahn said. “His mindset’s to play, and so we’ll see how he does each day.”
Tulane’s offense has been powered by running back Tyjae Spears, who leads the conference with 14 rushing touchdowns and ranks third with 1,177 rushing yards. Spears gained 130 on just eight carries against UCF three weeks ago, then added games of 121 and 181 yards with two touchdowns apiece since then.
“He’s real impressive to do what he’s done the last two weeks, and they’ve been committed, too, to getting it to him,” Malzahn said. “He carried it a whole bunch of times last week. He’ll carry it a whole bunch of times against us, we feel like. We’re gonna have to do a good job of fitting, gang-tackling, tackling better than we did last week.”
Saturday’s high-stakes matchup will be UCF’s final conference football game in the AAC before its move to the Big 12 next season.
–Field Level Media