TROY – Dylan Bradshaw didn’t have to be told about the Troy-South Alabama rivalry when he joined the Trojans in 2016.
“When you have that rivalry, when you have that week, it’s not so much as somebody grabbing your hand and saying, ‘Hey, look man, we don’t like this team,’” the redshirt junior center from Enterprise said last week.
“You see the difference in how they practice that week and the focus level and the effort people give and the preparation they give to try to get a win. It means a lot to our fans. It means a lot to us, too.”
The Trojans and Jaguars meet tonight in prime time on national television for the eighth game of a fiercely contested series that Troy leads 4-3.
Troy coach Chip Lindsey understands the importance of rivalry games.
“Any rivalry I’ve ever been a part of, when it’s a good rivalry like this one it doesn’t matter what the records are. We know that from the history of this rivalry,” Lindsey said. “I want it to be a good rivalry where we get after each other – because we compete in everything, every sport and recruiting and all that.
“At the same time, we know a lot of those guys. We want to compete and, obviously, win the game. At the same time, like I said, we do have a lot of respect for them and their staff and their players.”
South Alabama has earned that respect. Two years ago, the Jaguars came to Troy and shut down the team that had just defeated LSU in a thorough 19-8 whipping. Last season, the Trojans exacted some revenge by going to Mobile and thrashing the Jags 38-17.
In fact, the home team is just 2-5 in this series. South Alabama won 27-13 in Mobile in 2014. Troy’s only victory at The Vet was a 34-33 nail-biter in 2013.
Don’t ask Troy linebacker Carlton Martial to explain that home team disadvantage in this series.
“I have no clue. It’s probably just one of those crazy things that happens,” Martial said. “It could be nerves, but I’m not sure. Road teams feel like they have more to prove, I guess.”
Motivation shouldn’t be a problem for either team. Troy (2-3 overall, 0-1 Sun Belt) is desperate for a victory to avoid going two games down in the East Division behind No. 24 Appalachian State. South Alabama (1-5, 0-2) is desperate for a victory – period.
“South Alabama is a rivalry game, an ESPN game. We want to win the Belt,” Troy linebacker Justin Whisenhunt said. “Hopefully we can come out victorious. This is big right here. We need a home win coming off two home losses in close games. We need a home win for us and for our fans.”
Lindsey said the Jaguars’ record is deceptive with losses against West-leading ULM, Nebraska, Memphis and UAB. Those four teams have a cumulative 17-8 record.
“This is a dangerous team that is getting better when you watch them from the first game to now. They have continued to improve, and they have good players,” the coach said.
Quarterback Cephus Johnson, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, leads the South Alabama offense. Veteran running back Tra Minter is dangerous running and catching the football, Lindsey said.
“From the outside looking in, I’d say he’s the heartbeat of their team because he does so much,” the head coach said of Minter. “He’s around seventh in the country in all-purpose yards so we’ll have to find a way to slow him down and know where he is.”
Lindsey said the South Alabama defensive front is big and athletic, led by Tyree Turner, who is expected to return from an injury. Senior defensive end Jeffery Whatley from Dale County is another “key guy” for the Jags up front.
Riley Cole, Roy Yancey and Nick Mobley make up a very solid linebacker corps for South Alabama, Lindsey said.
“I think their defensive backs are really good, too,” the coach said. “For us, it’ll be a big challenge for us because they play a different style of defense then we’ve seen so far this season.”
Troy quarterback Kaleb Barker, who was listed as “questionable” after getting banged up in Troy’s loss to Missouri on Oct. 5, is expected to start against South Alabama. In fact, Lindsey is hopeful that Troy will get back several players who have been limited by injuries in the first half of the season.
Where this game falls on the schedule is crucial. Troy is a win from being .500. It is a loss from being 2-4 and 0-2 in the league.
“We cannot allow ourselves to get behind and dig ourselves a hole we cannot get out of,” Lindsey said. “The good thing about us is that we control our own destiny. … All of our goals are still out there.”
That includes retaining the Belt, which is on display every day – for every player, every recruit, every visitor to see.
“It’s our one rivalry game. It’s the Battle for the Belt. It’s two programs that have traditionally not liked each other too much, both on and off the field,” Bradshaw said.
“When you’re getting recruited here, the guys who came in this year, we have the Belt right now, and they see it.”