Trojans complete perfect season in conference play
LAFAYETTE, La. – No one ever said that going undefeated in league play would be easy, and that was certainly the case for the Troy Trojans on Saturday night at Cajun Field.
After surrendering a 24-point lead, the Trojans battled back to take a 48-31 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette to complete a perfect 8-0 run though the Sun Belt Conference to claim the outright league title for a second straight season. It is Troy’s fourth straight Sun Belt crown overall.
The Trojans (9-3) must now wait to see where they will be spending their holidays. Troy is guaranteed no worse than a third trip to play in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on December 20, but may have a chance to weigh options of playing in other games.
“As far as I am concerned, we are going to the New Orleans Bowl,” Trojans coach Larry Blakeney said. “We should know something for sure in the next couple of days, but we are going to be excited, no matter where we go.”
Troy jumped out to a 24-0 lead and appeared to be in cruise control, but the Ragin’ Cajuns stormed back to take a 25-24 lead in the third quarter. Troy answered the challenge by scoring on three consecutive possessions and then sealed the win when freshman Bryan Willis scooped up a ULL onside kick attempt and returned it 38 yards for a score.
That touchdown set off a celebration on the Troy sideline.
“It feels great,” senior linebacker Bear Woods said. “This was the goal we set and I said way back that whoever wins this conference would be undefeated and I knew it would be us.”
The Trojans came out firing on all cylinders early in the game, racing out to a 24-0 lead by early in the second quarter, but went to the locker room at halftime leading just 24-13 after leaving two Red Zone scoring chances on the field.
“We had all the momentum and they were a little down,” Trojans senior QB Levi Brown said. “I never thought they would make that huge comeback and you have to give them credit for fighting back. They played hard the whole game.”
But it was Brown, who set a new Sun Belt record for passing yards in a season, who jump-started the Trojans on the road to victory by hooking up with junior receiver Jerrel Jernigan four times down the stretch while completing his last eight passes for 174 yards.
“I knew we needed to stay calm and not panic,” Brown said. “We had to get some good defense, get a couple of stops, and we needed to make a couple of plays on offense. When I threw that long one down the middle to Jerrel, that got us going a little bit. We needed a big play and Jerrel made one for us. From there, we were just able to take off.”
That 67-yard pass to Jernigan on the final play of the third quarter set the Trojans up for a go-ahead 26-yard field goal from Michael Taylor early in the fourth.
The junior finished with 142 receiving yards on five catches, rushed for 23 yards and had an even 100 yards on four kickoff returns. His 265 all-purpose yards came on just 13 touches in the game.
The Troy defense followed suit with a three-and-out and Brown hit Jernigan over the middle again for 22 yards before connecting with Tebiarus Gill on consecutive passes, one for 15 yards and the second for 14 yards as Gill toed the sideline at the back of the end zone.
The Troy defense held ULL without a first down again on the next possession and Brown went back to work, hitting Jernigan for 20 yards on the same slant pattern before connecting again on a fade for a 26-yard TD pass with 4:47 to play.
“This is awfully sweet,” Blakeney said. “There are some great people in this league, but these seniors set the bar. We could have come out here and phoned it in, but they didn’t do that. They got the job done.
“I knew we were going to get their best shot, and they sure gave us enough to beat us. I think the world of Rickey Bustle and I knew that his team, in this place, was going to give us everything they had.”
The Trojans took advantage of two ULL turnovers to score points early in the game, and had great field position after two short Cajuns punts. The four Troy scoring drives combined to use just 5:54 off the game clock.
Troy struck first after senior Courtland Fuller stepped in front of a Chris Masson pass and returned his first career pick to the ULL three. Freshman Shawn Southward scored on the next play for a 7-0 Troy lead.
Southward finished the game with a career-high 152 yards rushing on just 15 carries.
The Trojans drove quickly to the ULL 14 on its next possession, but failed to score when Brown’s pass attempt to Travis Boyd was deflected into the air and intercepted at the four by the Cajuns’ Grant Fleming.
“We would have liked to have finished drives better than we did, but that is the way it goes sometimes,” Brown said. “The one off Travis’ hands was just bad luck. He’ll catch that ball 99 out of 100 times.”
After the Troy defense forced a punt, the Trojans took over again at their own 44 and put together their longest drive of the half, covering 56 yards in 2:21 with Brown hitting Jason Bruce for a 17-yard TD pass.
Southward continued with his career night on the next Troy possession, ripping off a 42-yard run to the ULL 7, but the Trojans stalled there and had to settle for a 31-yard Taylor field goal and a 17-0 lead.
Two plays after the kickoff, Fuller made another big play, recovering a ULL fumble at the Cajuns’ 27 and Southward did the rest with runs of nine and 23 yards for a touchdown and a 24-0 Trojans lead.
The only bad news for the Trojans in the game was the Fuller suffered a serious knee injury during the game.
“Courtland stole it from me because I was sitting there waiting for the ball and he cut right in front of me,” Woods said of the early interception. “I am glad he is the one who caught it because he took it a lot further that I could have. He put it all on the line in his last game. I hate that he got hurt, but I wouldn’t want to have played with anyone else.”
ULL finally got its offense going on the next drive, using 12 plays to cover 72 yards with Brad McGuire covering the final eight for the Cajuns’ first points of the game.
After Troy’s first punt of the game, the Cajuns struck for a 57-yard touchdown pass when Masson hit Luke Aubrey on a crossing pattern and Aubrey did the rest. ULL missed the PAT, but cut the deficit to 24-13.
The Trojans got back into position to increase the lead late in the half, driving to the ULL three mainly behind the running of Southward. ULL’s defense rose up and stuffed the Trojans on fourth and one at three to end the Troy scoring threat.
Troy looked as if it would score quickly in the third quarter when Jernigan took the opening kickoff back 56 yards, but three plays later it was Jernigan who fumbled trying to fight for extra yards, giving ULL the ball at their own 22.
The Cajuns used 15 plays to cover 78 yards, converting a fourth and three to keep the drive alive and getting help in the form of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Kevin Dixon that gave ULL another crucial first down.
Three plays after the flag against Troy, McGuire hooked up with Ladarius Green on a one-yard scoring pass. The PAT hit the right upright, leaving Troy with a 24-19 advantage.
After another stalled Troy offensive possession, the Trojans punted ULL back to the four yard line, setting up one of the more remarkable plays of the year.
Facing a third and five from the nine, McGuire was crushed by a Troy lineman as he threw from the end zone. The ball floated up and into the hands of Green, who took off down field for a 91-yard touchdown. The try for two failed, but ULL had battled all the way back to lead 25-24 with 4:11 left in the third quarter.
Brown finished the game with 293 yards passing, completing 20-of-31 attempts, with three touchdowns. His season number is now 3,868 yards, which surpasses the old Sun Belt mark of 3,688 set by Rusty Smith of FAU in 2007.