Tulane needed to get back to the right side of the win column against Southern Miss after it fell 37-20 in a game that looked to be within reach until the final minutes of fourth quarter against Ole Miss.
That’s exactly what the Green Wave did, traveling to Hattiesburg, Mississippi and heading home to New Orleans with a 21-3 win Saturday.
Slade Nagle’s offense came out hot with Kai Horton once again working as the starting quarterback while Michael Pratt was held out by a knee injury for the second consecutive week.
On a 7-play, 75-yard drive, Horton connected with former Notre Dame wide receiver Lawrence Keys III on a 29-yard and an 11-yard reception to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Horton himself in Tulane’s first possession of the game.
Those would be the only points that either team would put up in the first half of the game as the Green Wave offense worked through some issues staying in a steady rhythm and the Southern Miss defense came up with a few key plays.
Any signs of stagnance for Tulane disappeared in the second half, though. The Green Wave got back to the scoreboard with a 35-yard touchdown from Horton to veteran wide receiver Jha’Quan Jackson, who broke more tackles than one could count down the sideline as he managed to stay in bounds and get to the end zone.
That brought Tulane to a 14-0 lead, cut down to 14-3 on the ensuing possession with a 28-yard field goal from Southern Miss kicker Andrew Stein.
However, any hopes of Southern Miss keeping things within reach were dashed on Tulane’s final drive of the fourth quarter. A pair of long rushes from Ashaad Clayton-Johnson and Makhi Hughes set up a short touchdown reception for wide receiver Chris Brazzell II.
Here’s a look at three players who stood out on the victory:
WR Lawrence Keys III
Tulane used Keys in several unconventional ways during the 2022 season as the Green Wave found some success in trickery – that’s something that has also continued into this campaign. Keys made some more noise in the traditional role outside of reverse sweeps and more in the back half of last season. He’s stood out even more as a pure wideout at the beginning of this slate of games.
That could not have been more evident than the McDonogh 35 products effort against USM, reeling in three of Horton’s 6 passing attempts for 54 yards by the end of the first quarter alone en route to totaling 78 receiving yards by halftime. That was the stat line with which he would finish out the day as Brazzell II, Jackson and Clayton-Johnson took more targets in the second half.
QB Kai Horton
Horton has big shoes to fill in the absence of Pratt, something that could continue indefinitely given the way Pratt’s status has been up in the air since he sustained a knee injury in the 37-17 victory over South Alabama in Week 1.
While Horton was not without his mistakes in the loss to Ole Miss last Saturday, his raw traits, high ceiling and foundation to build upon were very much on display although he wasn’t able to create the same type of magic he had last season in the crucial road win against Houston.
The native of Carthage, Texas rebounded strong in Hattiesburg, missing only one of his passes in the first quarter. A high level of chemistry from Keys early helped create scoring chances including his own rushing touchdown.
Just as was the case in the Ole Miss game, Horton started off the contest with some beautiful throws but faltered at times. There was some back and forth within his performance, but the main thing for Horton seems to be establishing a higher rate of consistency. The talent and potential are there – it’s just going to take more in-game reps to establish that.
It’s not reasonable to expect Horton to be on the same level as Pratt, a veteran with years of college starting experience. Horton is showing some his potential as a quarterback who has seen action in only nine games (most of which were in relief) over the past three years.
When I asked head coach Willie Fritz about his opinion on Horton’s performance, he had far more praise than anything else.
“I thought there was only one (bad) time where he took a sack when he could have gotten rid of it,” Fritz said. “Other than that, he played pretty smart football and was accurate, threw a really nice ball to Chris Brazzell for the touchdown. I thought Coach Slade Nagle did a really good job play-calling.”
Horton felt the game had slowed down for him a good bit.
“Something I was talking to Michael (Pratt) about was how the game slowed down for me a lot,” Horton told me. “Especially after last week’s defense and just being able to get in the film room and actually know what they’re going to do this week. Last week, we had a tough time with their new DC and what they did… going out there and playing with the confidence I know I have and trusting the guys around me.”
Horton managed a 63% completion rate at USM, passing for 186 yards with a pair of touchdowns to go with the single rushing score.
LB Jesus Machado
While not a name as widely talked about on the Green Wave defense, Machado has been a factor in 2023. He demanded even more attention in the team’s first road contest of the year.
By halftime, Machado led the defense with six total tackles, two of which were solo. When the clock hit zeros at the end of the fourth quarter, he had a team-leading seven combined stops.
The Miami native will continue to be a player to watch as one of the pieces filling the large void left after last season by Nick Anderson and Dorian Williams.
“He’s just a real smart player,” head coach Willie Fritz said after the game. “He’s a really good tackler and him and Tyler Grubbs and Jared Small I thought all did some nice things… we’ve got good linebackers.”