Tulane shocks USC, wins Cotton Bowl 46-45 with wild comeback

Tulane running back Tyjae Spears (left) and quarterback Michael Pratt celebrate a touchdown against USC in the Cotton Bowl Classic game at AT&T Stadium on January 02, 2023 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Tulane running back Tyjae Spears (left) scored four touchdowns in Tulane's comeback win over USC in the Cotton Bowl. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

In the program's biggest bowl game in more than 80 years, No. 16 Tulane pulled off an incredible comeback.

The Green Wave shocked No. 10 USC 46-45 by scoring 16 points in the final 4:07 of regulation, flipping a 45-30 deficit into a 46-45 victory for the biggest win in program history.

The Trojans, with Heisman Trophy-winner Caleb Williams at the top of his game, looked in complete control when they tacked on a field goal to extend their lead to 45-30 with 4:30 to play.

But then things got interesting. Very, very interesting.

It took just 23 seconds and two plays for Tulane to respond. After a 59-yard completion from Michael Pratt to Duece Watts, Tyjae Spears notched his fourth touchdown run of the day to get the Green Wave back within a possession, 45-37, with 4:07 to play.

On the ensuing kickoff, Tulane caught a major break when the kick bounced off of USC’s Mario Williams — who was signaling for a fair catch — and out of bounds at the 1-yard line.

Two plays later, USC’s Austin Jones was tackled in the end zone for a safety to make it 45-39. On top of that, USC had to kick it back to Tulane with 3:20 to play.

From there, Pratt and the Green Wave offense went to work. Tulane worked its way down the field, converting on two fourth downs along the way.

With 22 seconds to go, Pratt delivered a dart to Watts to set up a first-and-goal at the 6. Watts absorbed a huge hit on the play, but he somehow held on to set up the winning score. Two plays later, Pratt found tight end Alex Bauman.

The play was initially ruled incomplete, but was overturned to a touchdown after a review. That tied the score, and an extra point put Tulane ahead for the first time, 46-45, with nine seconds to play.

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USC had one last-gasp attempt at a miracle, but Tulane got the stop to clinch the win.

Tulane goes from 2 wins to 12 wins

With the win, Tulane clinched the biggest turnaround in FBS history — going from just two wins in 2021 to 12 wins, a conference championship and a New Year's Six bowl victory in 2022. The Cotton Bowl is the program's biggest bowl win since 1934 and the 12 wins are tied for the most in school history (1998).

Tulane, like the entire Pac-12, had trouble stopping Williams and the USC offense. Williams torched the Tulane secondary for 462 yards and five touchdowns, but Tulane’s offense managed to stay within striking distance all game long.

Spears was the star of the day for Tulane. He rushed for 205 yards and four touchdowns on just 17 carries. Pratt attempted only 17 passes as USC's offense stayed on the field for long drives. Pratt made the throws when it counted, going 8-of-17 for 234 yards and two touchdowns, including the winner to Bauman.

USC ran 84 plays to Tulane’s 52, but only outgained the Green Wave by 55 yards. Tulane averaged a whopping 10.3 yards per play, a fitting statistical output on what was a remarkable season for Willie Fritz's offense and a horrific one for the USC defense.

USC finishes on down note after nearly making CFP

USC was ranked No. 4 in the country entering conference championship weekend. With a win over Utah in the Pac-12 title game, the Trojans would have played in the College Football Playoff. Instead, the loss to the Utes dropped USC down to the Cotton Bowl as Utah went to the Rose Bowl as the Pac-12 champions.

Many wondered how motivated the Trojans would be to play Tulane, the representative from the Group of Five conferences in the New Year’s Six bowl games. Early on, it was clear that USC was locked in — on offense at least. Williams, who hurt his hamstring in the Utah loss, looked a bit hobbled but he still played an unbelievable game.

Williams added to his season-long highlight reel, but USC’s defense couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain.

With the loss, USC concludes its first season under Lincoln Riley with an 11-3 record with Williams coming back for his junior season next fall.