Troy’s offense has scored 43 and 42 points in its losses to Arkansas State and Southern Mississippi, respectively.
The key question as the Trojans face Missouri on Saturday is can the defense get enough stops to upset the Tigers?
“We have the same game plan every week, just go out there and get the win,” true freshman free safety Dell Pettus said. “We know Missouri’s a big stage, but at the same time we understand the capabilities of our team.
“I don’t think we’re stressed out. We’re actually pretty confident going into this game. I’m confident, too. I’m just ready to go win on the road.”
Troy visits Columbia, Mo., with the ninth-ranked passing offense in the country out of 129 teams. The Trojans are also ranked No. 9 nationally in rush defense, giving up a stingy 76 yards per game on the ground.
They also rank No. 127 in pass efficiency defense. Opponents average 10.2 yards per pass attempt, 15.8 yards per catch and 316 yards per game through the air.
Last Saturday, Arkansas State’s redshirt freshman quarterback Layne Hatcher threw for 444 yards and four touchdowns in his first career start. Troy defensive coordinator Brandon Hall said his young secondary – which has started freshmen Pettus and Jaquez Dunmore at safety twice this season – is getting better.
“ We just have to figure out a way to make big plays,” Hall said. “The thing that was amazing was they were just 4-of-14 on third down, we got three turnovers, three sacks. Guys played hard.
“What’s even crazier … is we had our hands on four balls that we didn’t catch. The biggest thing for us, obviously, is we have to continue to work on stopping the big plays. That’s been kind of our Achilles heel in the back end.”
Hall and Troy head coach Chip Lindsey praised Pettus’ rapid development. He has been playing for injured starter Kyle Nixon since the Southern Miss game after playing much of preseason at cornerback and nickel. Injuries to strong safety Melvin Tyus and Nixon sent coaches scrambling.
“I think he’s the guy that was probably able to move to that spot more easily than some of the others,” Lindsey said. “He’s a guy that probably we didn’t anticipate being in the role he’s in, but he’s doing a great job with it.”
Pettus knows he’s learning a lot, but he’s also contributing. He led the Trojans with 10 tackles last week.
“I feel like it’s been going well,” the freshman from Harvest said. “I think my coaches and my teammates have been helping me a lot and I really appreciate that.”
While Lindsey said the game was probably going 100 mph during his first extended playing time against Southern Mississippi, Pettus insists he hasn’t been overwhelmed.
“Once I got out there, I knew I understood the game plan. I wasn’t really stressed out or nervous. I don’t really get nervous,” the Sparkman High graduate said. “I was just ready to play.
“I was fortunate enough to play every position in the secondary. That’s something they knew when they recruited me. I was mainly a cornerback, but I also knew how to play safety and whatever else, nickel. It wasn’t a big transition for me, whenever they moved me. I was just ready to help the team however I could.”
Lindsey said the improvement is evident when he watches film.
“When you see young players make plays sometimes they get to the play and don’t make the play. I see him being able to get to the play and being able to break down and make tackles in space, competing for balls down the field,” the head coach said.
Hall said Pettus “gets better every day” and his love for the game is obvious.
“Before he leaves here, I think he’ll be one of the better safeties to ever play here,” the coordinator said. “He’s a great kid, 4.0 student. He does everything you ask. He goes full speed in practice. He comes in and watches film. Guarantee you, he’s been a bright spot for us, considering the situation we’ve been in.”
Carlton Martial, Troy’s playmaking linebacker, has noticed Pettus making necessary adjustments.
“We have only had four games and he is making big strides,” Martial said. “At first he was quiet, really a new face. He didn’t want to communicate with anybody. When he got out here on the field we started to see him grow up more.
“Last game he was talking more, communicating more and making sure everybody got the call. He’s going to be great for us.”
With Nixon day-to-day, Pettus may need to be great sooner rather than later. Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant, two years removed from leading Clemson to the national semifinals, has a lot of weapons around him.
“ We see it as, Missouri is just the next team in the way.” Martial said. “Of course they are a really good SEC team. Kelly Bryant is an amazing talent.
“They have a big tight end (Albert Okwuegbunam). He is going to be a factor. But we are looking forward to strapping it on and seeing how the game is going to end.”