While it may not live up to the standard of the Rose Bowl or the CFP National Championship game, the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic is a great way to ring in the New Year. This time, we got a matchup between the 11-2 Tulane Green Wave and the 11-2 USC Trojans, featuring 2022 Heisman Winner Caleb Williams.
Naturally, being that Tulane belongs to the American Athletic Conference and is a much less prestigious program than one such as nine-time national champion USC, the matchup almost seemed unfair on paper.
Once the game got underway, it became evident that the No. 16 Green Wave were actually a formidable opponent for No. 10 Southern Cal.
Summing up arguably the biggest win in Tulane’s history, here are four winners and losers from the Cotton Bowl.
Cotton Bowl winner: Tulane’s Tyjae Spears shines in biggest game of his life
Tyjae Spears, at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, may not be a top NFL draft prospect, but he definitely boosted his stock with a dominant effort in the Cotton Bowl. Aside from the team as a whole, he’s undoubtedly our biggest winner from this game.
A big reason why Tulane had as much success as it did throughout the season is thanks to redshirt junior running back Spears. It happened again against USC.
Aside from losing a fumble when USC cornerback Mekhi Blackmon ripped the ball away, Spears played one of the best games of his young football career. Considering the stakes and the opponent, he’ll likely take his 205-yard, four-touchdown performance over his career-high 264-yard day in a loss to Memphis in 2021 any day of the week.
Loser: USC Trojans defense couldn’t come up with stops
The Trojans entered this matchup with the fourth-highest-scoring offense in the nation. But their defense? Not so great. USC allows, on average, 27.9 points per game, ranking 81st in the country.
Tulane’s offense has managed to score 35.2 points per game, good enough for the 22nd-best in college football. Yet, they don’t have nearly the same level of talent within the Tulane program.
USC allowed Tulane to score on seven-of-ten possessions, an efficiency that few anticipated. Despite the Trojans sacking Tulane QB Michael Pratt four times, including two from Nick Figueroa, the Trojans just couldn’t come up with enough stops. It didn’t help that their only turnover forced on the day came from Mekhi Blackmon with a clean strip on Tyjae Spears. It’s safe to say, the USC defense got outplayed and outcoached against the Green Wave.
Winner: Caleb Williams flashes leadership skills
It should come as no surprise that Caleb Williams was among the best players that took the field today. He again lived up to the hype. Spectators witnessed a dynamic quarterback who made AT&T Stadium look like his backyard.
Williams was throwing on the run, releasing the ball from an assortment of arm angles, and routinely using his mobility to escape everyone in his path. He was playing without his top receiver, Jordan Addison, who sat out with an ankle injury as he prepares for the 2023 NFL Draft.
But it became clear that USC’s wide receiving corps is in good hands, with Brenden Rice (son of NFL legend Jerry Rice) and Tahj Washington, who combined for 283 yards and two touchdowns.
Williams finished with 462 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception, his only major blemish on the day. Williams’ performance sets up what should be once again a magnificent campaign next season in which he’ll get a chance to defend his Heisman Trophy, even if he walked away in disappointment in this bowl game loss.
Loser: Lincoln Riley’s Trojans allow epic comeback
The Green Wave should not have been able to secure this win. The Trojans had all the momentum carrying into the fourth quarter, but it didn’t matter.
We witnessed a Tulane football team that refused to give up or buy into the notion that USC was a far more talented team. Instead of being intimidated, the Green Wave managed to erase a 15-point deficit in the final ten minutes of the game.
It all began with a quick, two-play, 63-yard drive that was largely the result of a 59-yard connection from Pratt to Duece Watts. Spears ran in for a four-yard touchdown on the next play to narrow USC’s lead down to 45-37.
USC’s Mario Williams dropped the ensuing kick return at the one-yard line, putting the offense in an extremely difficult position.
USC tried two rushing attempts, and on the second, running back Austin Jones couldn’t get out of the end zone, resulting in a safety that would pull Tulane to within six points and setting up a final chance.
Give credit to Pratt, who led a remarkable 12-play, 66-yard drive, capped off with a six-yard strike to Alex Bauman, leaving USC just nine seconds to try to overcome the 46-45 score. The Trojans’ final attempt didn’t come close, and the rest is history, giving the Tulane fanbase a day they’ll never forget.