No. 16 Tulane, No. 1 in all-time bowl game performance. 10 USC, overcame several double-digit deficits, and pulled out a thrilling 46-45 victory in the final seconds in the Cotton Bowl.
Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt went head-to-head against newly minted Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and made several key plays in the closing minutes of a drive that saw the Green Wave score the game’s final 16 points. Four and a half minute restriction. Trailing 45-30, Pratt drove down the field with 23 seconds left to score a touchdown that cut the lead to eight points. After a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, the Green Wave defense pinned USC in its own end zone for a safety.
Pratt helped lead a game-winning drive that included multiple third- and fourth-down conversions before delivering a touchdown strike with eight seconds left.
Tulane’s ability to win stems from the resilience it showed throughout the afternoon. The Green Wave fell behind 14-0 early, rallied back, then trailed 28-14 at halftime to make it 28-24 late in the third quarter. Those efforts foreshadowed the final push, which was driven in part by running back Tyjay Spears. Spears was the best player on the field at times and matched Williams’ playmaking, rushing for at least 100 yards in eight of his straight games. He totaled 205 yards and four touchdowns on 17 attempts in the win.
The win cemented the largest single-season turnaround in modern college football history. Tulane was 2-10 a year ago and now finishes 12-2 with an American Athletic Conference championship and a Cotton Bowl win against top-10 USC. It was already the program’s biggest bowl appearance since 1939, and mounting this kind of comeback on this stage would ensure a true storybook moment for coach Willie Fritz and the Green Wave.
The loss was more of an incredible disappointment than the outstanding performance of the 2022 Heisman winner. Williams threw for 462 yards and five touchdowns on 37-of-52 passing (71%) and showed all the reasons Heisman voters were drawn to his electric playmaking ability, keeping his focus on the field and often extending plays with his legs. Although Tulane has the best defense in the AAC this year, often winning blocks to pressure Williams, one thing the Green Wave have struggled to do is get Williams on the court. It was a great performance for wide receiver Brendan Rice, who had a breakout day (six catches, 174 yards, two touchdowns) in the absence of Jordan Addison.
It was a disappointing end to a successful first season with USC for Lincoln Riley. The Trojans coach led the program to its best season in years, but they finished with two losses, going from No. 4 in the college football rankings to losers of the New Year’s Six. Oh, and now Riley is 1-4 in bowl games over his career.
With Williams back in the fold, the challenge now is to restock the roster — especially on defense — and aim for a Pac-12 championship and College Football Playoff appearance in 2023.