It was a day of pomp and circumstance, one of remembrance and celebration, and one of great anticipation as the Tulane University football team took the field for its first on-campus home game since 1974 with the opening of the new Yulman Stadium.
Despite running out to first-half leads of 14-7 and 21-14, however, the Green Wave were unable to derail one of the most vaunted running games of the last decade as the Ramblin' Wreck of Georgia Tech piled up 344 rushing yards to defeat Tulane, 38-21, on Saturday afternoon before a sell-out crowd of 30,000 at the new facility.
"I just want to thank everybody for coming to this magnificent stadium," Tulane head coach Curtis Johnson said. "I thought our crowd was grand here tonight. We have some young players here, we made some mental mistakes and did some little things wrong tonight that we have to clean up. My hat goes off to Georgia Tech. I thought they were outstanding. They had answers to all the stuff we tried to do. Their quarterback was outstanding and their running backs were very good. They are a really good football team."
The Green Wave defense forced multiple turnovers for the 11th consecutive game as sophomore linebacker Nico Marley and junior defensive end Royce LaFrance recovered fumbles while redshirt-freshman cornerback Parry Nickerson pulled down an interception for the second-straight contest.
Offensively, Tulane piled up 190 first-half yards and reached the endzone on three of its first five possessions. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, turned three Green Wave interceptions into a trio of touchdowns, and the Yellow Jacket defense kept Tulane off the scoreboard in the second half.
Redshirt-freshman quarterback Tanner Lee completed 13-of-24 passes for 173 yards and a pair of scores, and his favorite target on the day was senior wideout Justyn Shackleford, who pulled down five passes for 62 yards - including a 12-yard touchdown strike 1:28 into the game to send the home crowd into a frenzy. Tulane used a balanced ground game with six players carrying the ball and sophomore fullback Lazedrick Thompson had 29 of the Green Wave's 96 rushing yards. Marley led the defensive effort with a career-high 11 tackles (6 solo, 5 assists).
"We started the game fired up," Shackleford said. "We should have come out with a win, but things just didn't go our way. Georgia Tech ran the ball all game and controlled the clock."
Tulane wasted little time making the fans on hand happy as sophomore linebacker Eric Thomas knocked the ball loose from Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas on the first play from scrimmage. Marley pounced on the loose ball for the turnover and Lee found Shackleford three snaps later for the first score in the stadium's history.
The Yellow Jackets answered with a 10-play, 75-yard drive which Tim Byerly capped with a one-yard run to tie the game, but Tulane came right back with 75-yard drive of its own which saw the Wave score on a 24-yard end-around run by freshman receiver Teddy Veal. A missed field goal and a punt later, Georgia Tech tied the game when Quayshawn Neely stepped in front a Lee offering and returned it 10 yards for a touchdown. Lee atoned for the early miscue four plays later when he found senior wide receiver Xavier Rush streaking down the left sideline for a 61-yard score to put the Green Wave ahead 21-14.
Another Lee interception on Tulane's next possession - this time by Demond Smith - set up Georgia Tech at the Green Wave 30, and Tony Zenon capped a three-play drive with a 19-yard touchdown run to re-tie the game. Following a failed fourth-down conversion by Tulane near midfield the next time the Green Wave had the ball, Harrison Butker split the uprights from 46 yards out as the final seconds of the first half ticked away to give the Yellow Jackets a 24-21 lead at the break that they would not relinquish.
Tech padded its lead on a three-yard Zenon run midway through the third quarter for the only score of the period and, following a blocked punt by Matt Connors with 10:30 left to play, Byerly capped the scoring with a one-yard run three plays later to account for the final score.
Three Georgia Tech runners finished with 50-plus rushing yards as Zach Laskey led the way with 86, followed by Thomas with 70 and Zenon with 62. Thomas added 15 yards through the air on 3-of-8 passing, and the duo of Paul Davis and Demond Smith shared team-high tackle honors with five apiece.
"I don't think we wore down, I thought we just made some mistakes that got us backed up," Johnson added. "We were fresh going out, and even at the end of the game. I thought our guys were good. Georgia Tech is such a different opponent when you talk about a wishbone offense as something you have never seen before. I thought Georgia Tech had all the answers for us tonight. They knew exactly what they were doing and they executed it really well."
The Green Wave return to action on Saturday, Sept. 13, when they play host to Southeastern Louisiana at 7 p.m. at Yulman Stadium.