Troy will make its third straight bowl appearance this Saturday, when the Trojans take on the Ohio University Bobcats in the New Orleans Bowl from the Louisiana Superdome.
This is the third straight bowl appearance for the Trojans, and the fifth in the last seven years. Two of those postseason matchups have taken place in the New Orleans Bowl, so it is safe to assume the Trojans will not be overwhelmed by the lure of Bourbon Street. Overall the Trojans are just 1-3 in their bowl appearances, and one of those setbacks came against Southern Mississippi in the Superdome back in 2008. However, the lone victory also came in the building, as the Trojans claimed the New Orleans Bowl title with a 44-17 victory over Rice in 2006.
When the season started in Troy, the players had a goal for the season and along with that goal came the catchy moniker "Drive for Five". With the team clinching at least a share of the four previous Sun Belt Conference titles, the Trojans were driven for a fifth title, and while the team achieved that goal, it certainly wasn't easy. Thanks to a little help from Middle Tennessee, which defeated FIU in its regular-season finale, the Trojans finished tied with the Golden Panthers atop of the league standings at 6-2.
"We did it," receiver Jason Bruce said. "We completed the 'Drive for Five'. That was the main thing on my mind. Middle Tennessee came through to beat FIU. A lot of guys that graduated before wanted us to keep the legacy alive. They wanted us to keep the things going that they started which was winning the conference."
Entering their second bye of the season the Trojans were a healthy 4-2 on the year, but a poor four-game stretch which saw Troy lose three games, including a 52-35 setback to FIU left another league title in doubt. However, Larry Blakeney is a veteran coach, and he kept his team focused on the prize, and the team's unbreakable will to win pushed the Trojans through Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic in their final two matchups.
While the Trojans' regular season ended with a bang, the Bobcats closed out their schedule with a whimper. Coach Frank Solich's crew opened the year with a poor September, losing three of its first four games, but once the calendar shifted to October the Bobcats turned opponents into prey. One by one the Bobcats dominated their competition, and when the dust settled Ohio went into its regular-season finale with a seven-game winning streak and a chance to claim its third Mid-American Conference East Division title in five seasons. All the Bobcats needed to do was beat a mediocre Kent State squad and it was off to Detroit to take on Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship. However, that was not the case, as the Bobcats were stunned by the Golden Flashes, 28-6. It was truly a shocking turn of events for coach Solich and his Bobcats, who scored over 30 ppg during their winning streak. Despite the loss, Ohio still earned a trip to New Orleans and these players understand it is an honor and a privilege.
"The traditions in New Orleans are very rich," said Ohio senior safety and captain Donovan Fletcher. "The opportunity to play a bowl game there makes the experience even more memorable. Troy is an exceptional team and competing against them will be a challenge that I know our team is looking forward to."
Surely a division title and chance at a conference championship would have sent the Bobcats charging into a bowl game, but instead Ohio will need to pick up the pieces, forget about what could have been, and try to capture the first bowl victory in school history. This is only the fifth bowl matchup for the Bobcats, but it is the third since 2007. Ohio made a trip to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl last year, but was narrowly defeated by Marshall, 21-17.
What will make this game even more appealing is the fact that this will be the first-ever battle between the two programs on the gridiron.
Over the past few seasons the offense for Troy caused terror inside the Sun Belt. However, the year began with a fresh-faced quarterback, who was replacing one of the all-time greats at the school. When the season opened no one in Troy knew what to expect from Corey Robinson, and the departure of Levi Brown could have meant the reign for the Trojans was finally coming to an end.
Clearly, that was not the case. Robinson stepped in and instantly started airing the ball out, as if he was picking up where Brown left off. The redshirt freshman threw for 3,339 yards and 24 touchdowns while completing over 62 percent of his throws. All those numbers added up to Second Team honors in the Sun Belt and a Freshman of the Year award as well, but more importantly to Robinson and the fans of Troy, they led to another league title. Now the next step for the young gunslinger will be to prove he can perform on the big stage of a bowl game.
It definitely helped Robinson's maturation process having a player as explosive and talented as Jerrel Jernigan at his disposal. Jernigan will go down not only as the best receiver in the program's history, but will also be on a short list of some of the best to ever play in the Sun Belt. Jernigan will finish his college career as the record holder for receptions, yards and all-purpose yards at Troy and in the Sun Belt. This year, the veteran wideout led the team with 77 receptions and 774 yards, while also hauling in five touchdowns. Along with his ability to burn defensive backs, Jernigan is also a tremendous return man and will definitely be on coach Solich's list as the number one player that needs to be contained in this matchup.
Opponents are going to focus their attention on stopping Robinson and the passing attack from putting up its usual numbers, but if Ohio is too worried about the pass, than the Bobcats could be burned on the ground. With all the attention being diverted to the passing game, and rightfully so, the rushing attack for Troy can quietly put up solid numbers. In fact, the team comes into this game averaging 151.3 ypg and is being paced by Shawn Southward (548 yards, seven TDs) and DuJuan Harris (498 yards, five TDs).
Coach Blakeney went to bed every night before a game knowing his offense was going to produce, but in the back of his mind lied the play of the defense. For everything the offense did right this season, the defense responded with inconsistent play. It wasn't all bad for this unit, as the Trojans made plenty of big plays and finished the regular season with 35 sacks and 28 takeaways. However, with all those sacks and takeaways, the defense still surrendered an inexcusable 31.0 ppg.
The majority of those sacks were racked up by Jonathan Massaquoi and Mario Addison. Massaquoi, who is a First Team All-Sun Belt selection tallied 11, while Addison (Second Team) collected nine. The two players also combined for 31.5 TFLs on the year, but no matter how much pressure the duo brought, the defense still could not stop the pass, allowing 247.6 ypg through the air.
Also by mid-season it was clearly that Massaquoi and the rest of the frontline, might play like gangbusters against the pass, but when it came to defending the run, the unit was lacking. Troy was simply overmatched and overpowered on the ground, as opponents gashed the team for 170.8 ypg and 26 touchdowns.
The reason Troy's top priority should be to stop the run, is because the Bobcats are dedicated to pounding the rock. Behind two First Team All-MAC tackles in Joe Flading and A.J. Strum, the Bobcats will definitely try to establish the run early and wear down this Trojan defense through four quarters.
The Bobcats head into this matchup averaging a respectable 169.2 ypg on the ground, but Troy will not be able to focus on one player, and will also need to worry about the quarterback taking off down the field as well. Because of that, Ohio has the ability to fool opponents with its ground game. Sure, Vince Davidson is leading the team with 513 yards, to go along with six touchdowns, but the second two rushing leaders are quarterbacks. Phil Bates, who is mainly brought into the game to run the football, has rumbled for 508 yards, while starting quarterback Boo Jackson has rushed for 325 yards and a team-best seven touchdowns.
While the Bobcats might pose a threat on the ground, their passing attack is not going to scare any opponent, even Troy. Jackson did complete slightly over 60.0 percent of his throws, but comes into New Orleans with just 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. And as for Bates, his passing numbers are a clear indication why he is brought into games, because the young QB has completed just 40.9 percent of his throws. If Jackson is unable to make Troy respect the pass, than the Bobcats could be in for another performance similar to the one against Kent State.
Since coach Solich has been at Ohio, the number one priority has been playing tough, and tenacious defense. Each year the Bobcats seem to be one of the best defensive teams in the MAC, and that was certainly the case this season, as they held the opposition to just 21.8 ppg.
The leader of this unit is veteran safety Donovan Fletcher, who racked up 68 tackles, while earning Second Team honors in the MAC. Fletcher collected five of the team's 17 interceptions and was the biggest reason for the team's success against the pass. Fletcher is more than a playmaker, he is virtually a coach on the field, and his guidance and understanding of the defense is the reason why Ohio allowed only 17 touchdowns via the pass. One of the key matchups in this game on Saturday will be the play of Fletcher and this tough defensive backfield against the arm of Robinson and Troy's receiving corps.
Troy should not expect much success on the ground, because if there is one area where the Bobcats have excelled it is against the run. Ohio was suffocating this season, limiting opponents to just 115.0 ypg on a mere 3.2 yards per attempt.
The defense will definitely keep the Bobcats within striking distance throughout the matchup, but the Trojans simply have too many weapons and will score enough to gain a victory.