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Tulane’s Pratt, Spears last game together in Cotton Bowl vs. USC

NCAA Football: American Athletic Conference Championship-Central Florida at Tulane

Dec 3, 2022; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Tulane Green Wave quarterback Michael Pratt (7) rushes in for a touchdown against the UCF Knights during the second half at Yulman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

ARLINGTON, Texas - There was plenty of speculation about Michael Pratt’s future and whether the Tulane quarterback who drew interest from Power Five schools ever really considered going into the transfer portal after the Green Wave landed a spot in the Cotton Bowl.

“When you have success, opportunities present themselves, but I wouldn’t say it was super tempting because this is my squad,” Pratt, the third-year starter, said without offering specifics. “These are my guys, and the coaches that recruited me into the culture and everything, coach (Willie) Fritz.”

Pratt has already said he is coming back for his senior season, and physical running back Tyjae Spears stayed for one last game before the NFL prospect heads to the Senior Bowl. The explosive runner said he never considered opting out Tulane’s most significant bowl game in decades.

“Man, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” Spears said of the bowl that comes a season after Tulane went 2-10.

“I think it goes to show the brotherhood we’ve built and family, and not wanting to walk out on each other,” said center Sincere Haynesworth, one of the team captains. “Just the biggest game Tulane has had in a long time, and it just goes to show what we’ve put behind us and how much we all care about this and how bad we want that.”

The American Athletic Conference champion Green Wave play Southern California on Monday in a matchup of 11-2 teams at the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. Their nine-win improvement has already matched an FBS record.

Tulane, which played in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day 1940, finished as this season’s highest-ranked Group of Five team (16th in the final College Football Playoff rankings). A 45-28 win over UCF in the AAC championship game avenged its only loss since September.

Pratt had 442 total yards and five touchdowns in the title game. Spears rushed for 199 yards with a 60-yard TD, which included a leap over a tripped-up teammate, while extending his FBS-best active to streak to seven 100-yard games in a row.

“We’re really fortunate on offense because our best players are our best leaders,” first-year Tulane offensive coordinator Jim Svoboda said. “Those are two of them.”

Pratt has thrown for 2,776 yards with 25 touchdowns and five interceptions this season. He has had only two passes picked off over the past eight games.

The quarterback from Florida started Tulane’s final nine games in 2020, when he threw for 1,806 yards and his 20 TD passes were the most nationally by a true freshman. He has thrown a touchdown in all but one of his 33 career games, including the first 17.

In the Green Wave’s 2021 season opener against Oklahoma, which was moved to Norman from the Tulane campus because of Hurricane Ida, Pratt completed 27 of 44 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns. The Sooners’ defensive coordinator then was Alex Grinch, who went with Lincoln Riley to USC after that season.

“Tough competitor. I think he has anticipation skills, in terms of throwing the football. Willing to stand in the pocket versus some pressure situations,” Grinch said of Pratt. “Nothing but impressed. That looked like probably a championship football team that maybe was on the brink. It’s easy to say now, connecting the dots that way. But certainly you saw evidence of that. And you got a quarterback, you got a shot. And they certainly have one.”

That was Spears’ first game back from an ACL injury that cut short his sophomore year. He had only six carries for 20 yards and caught three passes for six yards against the Sooners, but did go on to run for 863 yards that season.

After being limited last spring by a pulled hamstring, and still rusty early this season, Spears broke through to become the first non-quarterback named the AAC’s offensive player of the year. He has 1,064 yards rushing over the past seven games while averaging 7.8 yards per carry.

“I’m having more fun than I’ve had before,” Spears said.

“He’s an awesome dude,” Pratt said. “He comes to practice every single day going 110 percent. His attitude and effort every day, he’s super consistent. There’s never a day that he’s not the same guy.”