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The only pretty thing about Troy’s 10-6 Sun Belt Conference victory over South Alabama on Thursday night was the celebration afterward.
The crowd at Hancock-Whitney Stadium didn’t reach the sellout that was announced before the game. But it was one large and boisterous group. The crowd and the national television expected a classic game between the top two teams in the Sun Belt West. What they got was a slugfest that was maddeningly frustrating at times and fun to watch for old-school football fans.
“I like playing good defense. I ain’t going to make no secret about that,” Troy head coach Jon Sumrall said on his postgame appearance on the Trojan Radio Network. “Now, I’d like to hold the other team to six points and score 40. That would be a whole lot more fun. And we’re going to get there. We’re finding our way. We did some good things at times, offensively, but to win games different ways and win, maybe some games that are ugly [is fine]. At the same time, you’ve got to know the strength of your team from a veteran standpoint, and we’ve got a lot of quality older guys on defense. We’re going to lean on those guys to win football games.”
On Thursday night, the Troy defense limited a potentially explosive South Alabama offense to a pair of field goals. The Jaguars managed just 246 yards on 62 plays, with 31 of those yards coming on 21 running plays. South Alabama running back La’Damian Webb, who is banged up, didn’t start, but he was limited to 12 yards on eight carries when he got in the game.
Quarterback Carter Bradley had some moments of effectiveness, but Troy’s defensive front never let him get comfortable. Bradley was 29 of 40 for 215 yards with an interception. He was sacked three times by a Troy defensive front that consistently whipped a South Alabama offensive line that was included on the Joe Moore Award midseason honors list earlier this week. Troy defensive lineman T.J. Jackson, who left the game twice because of ankle problems, fought through pain to contribute three tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and a quarterback hurry. Linebacker Carlton Martial had a team-high eight tackles and was disruptive throughout.
“We got grit,” Sumrall said. “I don’t know if we know how to play offensive football and score points yet, but we dang sure got grit and toughness. These kids, man, just over and over again, found a way to answer the bell and get themselves off the mat. You look at our football team. I don’t think we’ve had a week where we didn’t play hard — eight straight weeks without a bye. On a short week, to come down here, I don’t think anybody picked us to win the game. We were the underdog. A lot of people think we didn’t have a chance, proud of the way they played the game.”
While the offense wasn’t sharp, a running game that spent the early part of the season spinning its wheels found a way to contribute to the win. DK Billingsley scored the game’s lone touchdown on a 5-yard run with 14:56 left in the first half.
South Alabama looked like it was on the way to tying the game in the final seconds before halftime when it appeared Devin Voisin made a diving reception inside the Troy 5-yard line. However, the play was overturned after a video review, and the Jaguars settled for a 41-yard field goal by Diego Guajardo to trail 7-3 at the half.
Guajardo hit another field goal with 10:27 left, this one from 32 yards, to trim the deficit to 7-6. Troy with a 51-yard field goal by Brooks Buce just under three minutes later.
Troy got the ball back with 4:01 remaining, and South Alabama still holding all three of its timeouts. The Trojans put together a gut-check drive that nearly erased all the time left. And it was the ground game that did the work. Perhaps the biggest play of the drive came when the Trojans quickly face a third-and-1 on the Troy 33-yard line. At the time, Troy was 0 for 10 on third down plays. This time, though, Billingsley, who finished with 86 yards on 19 carries, surged forward for a 2-yard gain to move the chains. Eventually, the Trojans ran out all but the final 19 seconds.
Afterward, Sumrall had a message for his team.
“Everybody is talking about winning the conference title,” Sumrall said. “If we put up that many points on offense, we will not win the conference title. We got three more conference games left. That ain’t good enough, that ain’t it.”
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