Troy opens Sun Belt Conference play Saturday against a team and a storyline nobody wants to face.
Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson – who lost his wife, Wendy, to breast cancer on Aug. 19 – brings his Red Wolves to Veterans Memorial Stadium.
Troy players and coaches will wear pink ribbons in Wendy’s honor.
“Blake Anderson is one of the best guys I’ve been around in this profession,” Troy head coach Chip Lindsey said. “I think the way he’s handled this whole situation has been extremely impressive. I think his resilience, and the way that the Arkansas State community has comforted him and his family says a lot about what college athletics is all about.
“Obviously, we’d like to continue to raise awareness for cancer research, so we’re going to take some donations this weekend to make a formal pledge to cancer research in honor of the Anderson family.”
Rest assured, however, that at 5 p.m. Anderson’s team will be trying to pound the Trojans into submission – and vice versa. Nobody wants to start conference play 0-1.
Arkansas State (2-2 with wins over UNLV and Southern Illinois and losses to SMU and Georgia) found out this week that starting quarterback Logan Bonner is out for the season with a torn ligament in the thumb of his throwing hand.
Bonner led the Sun Belt with 1,052 yards passing through the first four games of 2019. He had thrown for 10 touchdowns with just one interception.
His replacement is expected to be Layne Hatcher, a former Alabama transfer from Arkansas who was that state’s high school career passing leader with 15,483 yards and 185 touchdowns. Hatcher left Alabama in April and is a redshirt freshman.
The Red Wolves have a lot of weapons around Hatcher.
“I think their top three wideouts stand out the most,” Lindsey said. “They’ve got big wideouts that are athletic and very skilled. Their wide receiver group is probably one of the best in our league.”
Omar Bayless (26 catches, 476 yards, 6 TDs), Jonathan Adams (22, 251, 1) and Kirk Merritt (20, 208, 3) lead the Red Wolves in receiving.
Marcel Murray, last year’s Sun Belt Offensive Freshman of the Year, leads a trio of running backs. Murray has carried 27 times for 136 yards. Ryan Graham has 134 yards on the ground and Isaiah Azubuike has 128 yards rushing.
“They get to run behind an offensive line that is big and physical,” Lindsey said. “So, it’s definitely going to be a big challenge for us on that side of the ball.”
Or, as Troy defensive coordinator Brandon Hall put it: “Southern Miss 2.0.”
“I think the difference in the game will be those verticals,” Hall said. “Can we win our share of the 1-on-1’s outside, which we didn’t do against Southern Miss. I think if we do that, I think we have a chance. Cut down on the mental mistakes and cut down on the big plays and I think we’ll have a chance.”
On the other side, Arkansas State has a very strong front seven, particularly its four-man front.
“I think their front is as good a front as we’ve played. Very similar to Southern Miss, maybe even a little better. They’re active, now,” Lindsey said.
Kevin Thurmon and Forrest Merrill are the inside tackles. The ends are William Bradley-King and Caleb Bonner.
“Big, physical guys that try to establish the line of scrimmage on your sign,” Troy offensive coordinator Ryan Pugh said of Thurmon and Merrill. “They do it against everybody. It doesn’t matter who they’re playing. That’s the challenge for our guys this week.
“But their defensive ends are very good pass rushers, too. Their front four makes them go. Their linebackers do a great job of playing physical and fitting downhill. And the back end, their secondary, is pretty good, too. They’re a good defense, for sure.”
Anderson took a leave of absence to be with Wendy, their daughters and two sons. He returned, unannounced, the day of the Red Wolves’ road win at UNLV on Sept. 7.
“Your heart just goes out to people that have to deal with those tragedies,” Lindsey said, noting cancer touches the lives of nearly everyone. “I’ve been so impressed by how he’s handled his situation.
“Obviously, we continue to raise awareness and hopefully help somewhat this weekend by getting our fans involved. I think these two programs have a lot of respect for each other. I know we respect them and their staff and I think they do, as well.”
Military Appreciation Game: Troy has designated Saturday’s contest to be its annual military appreciation game, which will honor servicemen and women who serve our country.
Troy Athletics will provide free admission to all active duty, retired and reserve members of the military with a valid military ID. Military tickets will be available on Saturday at the Riddle-Pace Field (Baseball) ticket office.
Four T-6 Texans will do a flyover during the Star-Spangled Banner.
At halftime, all active, retired and reserve members of the military will be invited onto the field to walk with their respective branch of service.
During Saturday’s game, Troy Athletics will unveil a new addition at The Vet with a permanent POW/MIA Chair of Honor located in the South End Zone Plaza. The Chair of Honor is to remain perpetually empty to help people remember that even though our soldiers are not here, there is always space for them.
“Troy University has a deep connection the United States Military, and that is a relationship we take seriously,” Troy director of athletics Brent Jones said.
Hawkins honored: Troy University is celebrating the 30 years as Chancellor from Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr., on Saturday. Before the game, the university will dedicate a new clock in his honor at 2 p.m. in front of Smith Hall.
There will be a special helmet decal and an in-game presentation.
“Chancellor Hawkins and his wife (Janice) have meant so much to our u n iversity, so I think it’s a neat thing for him be honored for 30 years of service,” Lindsey said. “He’s a guy that’s so impressive. Being around him, I think you wish you could be a better person and more like him.
“Obviously, he and his wife have done so much for our university in a lot of different ways. He’s really put Troy on the map nationally and really brought our university from the Division II ranks to Division I. He’s done an unbelievable job here and it should be a special weekend for him.”