Even though his contested 6-yard catch at the end of the Cotton Bowl was initially ruled incomplete, Alex Bauman knew he had scored possibly the biggest touchdown in Tulane history.
“I kept my hands underneath the ball,” he explained.
Even with linebacker Eric Gentry draped over him as they rolled over in the end zone, the long replay review proved Bauman made the catch with 9 seconds left. On Monday, the 14th-ranked Green Wave defeated Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and No. 8 Southern California in a frantic finish.
“I think I had a heart attack,” Tulane coach Willie Fritz said on the field after the game.
“If you told us before the game that we only had one drive, one chance to go down there and win the game, we’d take it ten times out of ten,” quarterback Michael Pratt said.
The Green Wave (12-2) scored 16 points in the final 4:07, including the game-winning touchdown after regaining possession after a safety, to complete an FBS-record 10-win turnaround after going 2-10 last season.
“This is a huge win for the programme, the university, and the city,” Fritz said.
Williams was 37-for-52 passing for 462 yards and a Cotton Bowl-record five touchdowns, just one month after suffering a hamstring injury in USC’s Pac-12 championship game loss to Utah, which kept the Trojans (11-3) from making the four-team College Football Playoff.
Tyjae Spears rushed for 205 yards, his eighth consecutive 100-yard game in the FBS. His career-high fourth touchdown sparked the final scoring surge for American Athletic Conference champion Tulane, which was the highest-ranked Group of Five team in the New Year’s Six game.
The Green Wave competed in their most important bowl game since the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day, 1940, when they were still a member of the Southeastern Conference, and it was their biggest bowl victory since the 1935 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, where their campus is located.
After Spears’ 4-yard touchdown run with 4:07 remaining, the Green Wave chose to kick deep rather than attempt an onside kick. Mario Williams signalled for a fair catch, but the ball was fumbled out of bounds at the 1. Two plays later, defensive tackle Patrick Jenkins smothered Austin Jones in the end zone for a safety.
“We were debating whether or not to onside kick,” Fritz, Tulane’s seventh-year coach, explained. “Obviously, getting it on the 1 and getting the safety was fantastic.”
Pratt only completed 8 of 17 passes for 234 yards, but he did have two 24-yard completions on the final drive after the safety. On fourth-and-6, he scrambled for 8 yards.
The first 24-yard pass to Bauman converted a fourth-and-10 situation. After a 24-yard gain to the 6 with 18 seconds left, Deuce Watts held on despite a crushing hit from a defender that left both of them on the ground.
Despite the coach’s first loss in six games at AT&T Stadium, the Trojans matched the biggest turnaround in school history after Williams followed coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma. Their debut improved on last season’s 4-8 record by seven wins.
“I’ve rarely felt so conflicted at the end of the year,” Riley said. “On the one hand, I’m sick about how we finished the season….” This year, we lost three games. We lost two of them on the game’s final play. And we blew a chance to go to the College Football Playoff in the fourth quarter of the championship game.”
Until that final touchdown, the Trojans had never trailed. Williams threw touchdown passes on their first two possessions. A 9-yard pass to Michael Jackson III capped the game-opening 9-minute drive, USC’s longest by time this season, and Terrell Bynum’s 3-yard catch capped a 95-yard drive early in the second quarter to make it 14-0.
Tulane tied the game at 14 on Pratt’s 87-yard catch-and-run touchdown pass to Jha’Quan Jackson. However, USC scored twice in the final 2:21 of the first half, on a 39-yard run by Raleek Brown and a 4-yard catch by Brenden Rice with 12 seconds left.
Rice, the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, had six receptions for 174 yards and two touchdowns. Tahj Washington finished with five receptions for 109 yards.
Williams was injured on a 59-yard run early in the Pac-12 championship game loss to Utah on Dec. 2, but he still threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns. USC’s only other defeat came at the hands of the Utes, who won on a game-winning 2-point conversion at home in mid-October.
The Cotton Bowl was Williams’ third game with five touchdown passes this season. His lone interception set up Tulane’s game-tying long touchdown run. Williams threw off his back foot on a scramble with an open field in front of him and was picked off by Jarius Monroe.
“It’ll stick around. “You lose the last game of the season, go into the offseason, and everything burns,” Williams explained. “Don’t have another game after. It’s going to catch fire.”
Tulane had six plays of at least 30 yards (two passes and four runs) and USC had five (four passes, one run). Jackson’s 87-yard catch-and-run for the Green Wave tied the longest touchdown in Cotton Bowl history.