NEW ORLEANS – As Tulane receiver Shae Wyatt watched jubilant fans streaming onto the field, he couldn't help but reflect upon how far his team had come since finishing last season 2-10.
“It’s definitely surreal," said Wyatt, whose two touchdown catches were no small part of why a celebratory scene so hard to conceive of a year ago was unfolding around him. “Seeing all the other schools with their success, and having their fans storm the field — eventually, everybody wants that.”
Michael Pratt accounted for 442 total yards and five touchdowns, Tyjae Spears highlighted his 199 yards rushing with a 60-yard score and No. 18 Tulane beat No. 22 UCF 45-28 on Saturday night in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
The victory virtually assured Tulane (11-2) would play in the Cotton Bowl — its first major New Year’s Day bowl since the 1939 season.
A full hour after the game, Tulane players were still in uniform, walking back to the field from the locker room to pose for photos with teammates, some with cigars in hand. Spears joked that his elbow was sore from fans pulling on him for a congratulatory embrace.
“It was an amazing feeling, man," Spears said. "That’s something that will stick with us for the rest of our life.”
And Wyatt suggested that Tulane's remarkable turnaround should serve as a lesson.
“They were just throwing dirt over us and for a while it was hard to bounce back,” Wyatt said of last season, during which Tulane was displaced by Hurricane Ida to a Birmingham hotel for a month, and plagued with injuries to prominent players.
“If you keep your faith and you believe in your brothers that are next to you, flowers will grow. I promise you," Wyatt said. "I hope this is a testament to anybody out there.”
Pratt passed for a career-high 394 yards, including touchdowns of 73 yards to Duece Watts, 60 and 10 yards to Wyatt and 43 yards to Lawrence Keys. Pratt also ran for a pivotal 18-yard touchdown with 4:04 left.
“It was awesome to close out that game and have those fans so fired up,” said Pratt, named the game's most outstanding player.
Spears electrified the record crowd of 30,118 at Tulane's cozy, on-campus Yulman Stadium with his long scoring run, on which he broke two tackles near the line of scrimmage, made two other defenders miss and hurndled his own fallen teammate after cutting back inside.
The Green Wave, which earned the right to host the title game by ending Cincinnati's 32-game home winning streak last weekend, avenged a 38-31 regular-season loss to UCF (9-4) on the same field on Nov. 12.
But UCF was not quite the same team because of QB John Rhys Plumlee's nagging hamstring injury, which appeared to rob him of the explosiveness he displayed by running for 176 yards in the previous meeting.
Plumlee struggled enough early on that coach Gus Malzahn pulled him in the second quarter in favor of Thomas Castellanos. But with Tulane up 24-7 in the middle of the third quarter, Malzahn put Plumlee back in as primarily a passer — and he nearly led the Kights all the way back.
“He's one of the toughest players I think I've ever coached,” Malzahn said. “John Rhys just kept telling me, ‘Coach, give me another chance.’ ... He really gave us a spark."
Plumlee led UCF quickly for a touchdown to make it 24-14, converting a fourth-and-10 pass along the way and capping the drive with a 17-yarder to Kobe Hudson.
“You work all year to play in a game like this,” said Plumlee, who completed 29 of 39 for 209 yards and one TD, but finished with minus-7 yards rushing as Tulane had six sacks. “I didn't want to sell myself short or sell this team short.”
Tulane responded when both UCF safeties froze on a play-fake to Spears and Pratt found Watts running free behind the defense.
UCF cut it to 31-21 when former Virginia QB RJ Harvey took a backward pass from Plumlee and launched a 49-yard TD pass to Hudson.
And the Knights got the ball right back when Spears fumbled after a catch on the Green Wave 30. Isaiah Bowser's 10-yard run shortly after got UCF as close as 31-28 with 9:48 still left.
But Pratt again found a way to lead the Wave down the field, connecting with Wyatt for the longer of the receiver's two TDs, and UCF didn't threaten again.
UCF: Knights sophomore backup QB Mikey Keene, who had come in after Plumlee injuries for comeback victories over Cincinnati and South Florida, did not dress for the game. That allowed him to retain a year of eligibility, but also raised questions over whether he might test the transfer portal.
Tulane: It was a dream end to week that got off to a less-than-ideal start with reports out of Atlaata that head coach Willie Fritz being pursued by Georgia Tech.
“Well, I sure am glad I stayed,” Fritz said. “I made a commitment to these kids and the last thing I ever wanted to be was a distraction. So, I'm just proud to be here.”
UCF: Awaits a bowl bid on Sunday.
Tulane: Heads to its most significant bowl appearance since losing 14-13 to Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1940.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/ap_top25. Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://tinyurl.com/mrxhe6f2