TROY — A number of positive rewards are within reach if Troy can upset No. 22 Appalachian State on Friday in the regular-season finale.
The Trojans (5-6) can get to .500. They can become bowl eligible. Most important, it would send a small but successful senior class out “the right way,” as head coach Chip Lindsey put it.
A Troy victory also would cap a dramatic turnaround. The Trojans are coming off a 53-3 loss to Sun Belt West champion Louisiana last Saturday. It is believed to be the worst conference loss in Troy football history.
Facing East champion Appalachian State (10-1) doesn’t appear any easier. The Mountaineers average just over 38 points per game to Troy’s 35.7. The also give up fewer than 20 points per game to Troy’s 33.5. Veteran quarterback Zac Thomas, an Alabama native, leads a run-first offense that can also punish defenses with play-action passes.
The Mountaineers have one of the best running backs in the country in Darrynton Evans, who averages just over 106 yards per game. Lindsey said he “looks like an NFL guy.”
“They have a really solid offense and do a lot of good things with their formations and in the play-action game,” Troy’s coach said. “They run a similar offense to us, so it’s going to be a great challenge for our defense.”
Middle linebacker Jordan Fehr leads the Mountaineers with nearly eight tackles per game. What stands out, however, is the depth and experience Appalachian State has on defense.
“The thing that stands out the most is that they get all 11 players to the football on every play,” Troy offensive coordinator Ryan Pugh said. “I think there are no plays that you watch on tape and you say they didn’t make that play because this guy wasn’t busting his tail.”
Troy has been prolific on offense — with the exception of last week’s trip to Lafayette and a non-conference trip to Missouri.
Quarterback Kaleb Barker has thrown 30 touchdown passes this season, most by a Troy QB through the first 11 games of a season in the Division I era. The senior’s 3,330 passing yards are the second most in the Trojans’ DI history.
Troy receiver Kaylon Geiger has 74 receptions and needs 10 more to tie the school’s single-season record.
Barker talked this week about fast his career has flown by.
“It’s kind of surreal, for me. I felt like four years ago I was just getting here. You kind of blink your eye and here you are, your last game, last home game,” the quarterback said. “I’m excited. I think all the seniors would say the same thing. It’s been kind of a wild journey.
“I came in after the first year that coach (Neal) Brown was here. So we’ve had three really successful seasons and we struggled this last year. I think I’ve had the most fun this last year, just with all my boys and in the offseason and kind of learning the new coaching staff and the way they go about things. It’s been a journey, but it’s been fun.”
Barker said last week’s debacle was completely unexpected, but he did not the team was “uptight” before the game.
“I feel like this week’s more relaxed already. We’ll play loose on Friday and see what happens,” Barker said. “For me, at least, the message to the offense is just have fun.
“Just do what we’ve been doing all year and just make sure that we have the most fun we can — whether that be cracking jokes on the sideline or cracking jokes on the field. That’s when we’re at our best, when we’re loose and relaxed.”
Barker is one of the Trojans’ four permanent team captains. The others, all seniors — running back B.J. Smith, safety Melvin Tyus and bandit/defensive end Jarvis Hayes — have missed significant stretches of the season.
Smith and Tyus suffered season-ending injuries. Hayes, who hasn’t started since he was injured at Coastal Carolina, said he’s trying to get back and play in his home finale.
“Me, only being here two seasons and coming from junior college, it really flew by,” Hayes said. “I wish I would have been here for all four years and experience the tradition that Troy has. For me to experience what I have is a great feeling. It’s kind of sad that it’s going by so fast.
“I really wasn’t expecting to be a captain. I see a lot of my teammates look at me as a captain. I think to myself, ‘Why is that I am a captain?’ Honestly, it’s really a blessing to be a captain.”
This isn’t the record Troy, picked to finish second behind Appalachian State in the preseason Sun Belt rankings, was expecting. Players talked about wanted that sixth win, a possible bowl trip and the opportunity to extend their season.
“The whole team knows that this is our last chance to get into a bowl game,” senior right guard Tristan Crowder said. “We have nothing to lose so I believe the whole team will give everything we got. Fight to the bitter end and get to that bowl game.”
Senior right tackle J.L. Gaston said it’s “on everybody’s mind.” But he also said taking care of the little details — and not just the outcome — will be important against Appalachian State.
“We’re just focusing on getting back to where we were and doing what we need to do to win, doing our job, doing the small things, not shooting ourselves in the foot, per se,” Gaston said.
“Go back to playing Troy football, the way Troy football has been played the last three years and definitely in the past, before we were even here.”