The checklists for potential distractions are full for Thursday night’s nationally televised Sun Belt matchup between Troy and South Alabama.
It begins with the short week, with both teams coming off one-score Sun Belt wins on Saturday night. It continues with the Sun Belt standing implications, considering these two teams appear to be the top teams in the SBC West. Thoughts of playing in front of a nationally televised audience on ESPNU and potentially having a sellout crowd at Hancock Whitney Stadium have to pop in the players’ minds this week. South Alabama could very well be playing to stay in the race for the Group of Five slot in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games.
That’s not to mention that in some cases, you have friend playing against friend on the other side of the ball.
Welcome to big game week.
“If you get caught up in all the stuff that’s on the periphery, that really has no effect on how you play the game, you can get distracted,” said Troy head coach Jon Sumrall. “There is motivation. If I’ve got a problem to motivate a team to play this game Thursday night, then we got real issues that are more severe than I can even try to figure out. If you’re not emotionally excited about playing this game, you probably got to check your pulse and figure out why you’re doing what you’re doing. For us, it’s about focusing on making sure you’re prepared and that you’re ready to execute at a high level and play with tremendous effort.”
Sumrall said he discussed all the potential distractions with the team on Sunday. Then, he started working on preparations.
At South Alabama, it’s a similar approach for Kane Wommack.
“I told the players 'In this building there are a number of things to point to that are potential distractions for us, and they are distractions if we allow them to be,’” Wommack said. “I think it's awesome that we are playing against a team that is also positioned to compete at the end of the season. You look at a packed Hancock Whitney Stadium, and all those things are really great, but ultimately this team is in the position that we are because we've been so relentless in the detail of our process, so those are the things that we are going to talk about this week."
One final distraction piece, the teams have played 10 times with Troy holding a 7-3 advantage in the series. It’s safe to say this one carries more meaning than the other 10 meetings. This brings us back to getting back to work, instead of talking about distracting things.
At South Alabama, perhaps that begins with finding a way to minimize the impact that linebacker Carlton Martial makes on Thursday night. The 5-foot-9, 210-pound Mobile native has 63 tackles this season, despite missing 1 ½ games because of an injury, and is closing in on becoming the all-time leading tackler in NCAA history.
Despite being a tackling machine in high school at nearby McGill-Toolen, Martial wasn’t recruited by his hometown team. Of course, that means the Jaguars were like most college programs when it comes to Martial’s recruitment. He enrolled as a walk-on at Troy and has enjoyed his four meetings against the Jaguars. Martial has 43 tackles, including 14 in each of the past two seasons, in four wins over the Jaguars.
“I love Carlton Martial, just the way he plays the game,” Wommack said. “You turn on the tape every week to prepare for an opponent and you'll see No. 2 on it. I told him at [Sun Belt Conference] Media Day, that he was my favorite player in the Sun Belt that doesn't wear a Jag helmet. It's true. The way he carries himself every single day, and the energy that he plays with; his teammates feed off that energy.”
For Troy, the biggest concern could be slowing down South Alabama quarterback Carter Bradley and the high-flying Jaguar offense. Bradley, a transfer from Toledo, who is in his first season in Mobile, is coming off setting a school record with 420 passing yards in a win over Louisiana-Monroe.
“Man, he is the real deal,” Sumrall said of the 6-foot-3, 216-pound Bradley. “He’s got real big arm talent, quick release, really good anticipation, good with his feet, good pocket awareness and presence. He’s the difference with their team.”
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