The Sun Belt’s midweek slate of games in October continues with South Alabama visiting Troy on Wednesday night. Less than 200 miles separates these Sun Belt rivals, and this will be the sixth overall meeting in this series. The Trojans have won two in a row against the Jaguars, but both matchups were decided by one score.
Troy has been riding (and rightfully so) a wave of national attention since beating LSU on Sept. 30. The Trojans are 4-1 after five contests, with the only loss coming at Boise State in Week 1. While coach Neal Brown’s team earned a lot of respect and accolades for the victory in Baton Rouge, this program now has to refocus for Sun Belt play. Finishing the regular season as the top Group of 5 team isn’t an easy path, but the Trojans have a chance to rank in the top 25 by the end of the year with an 11-1 record. And of course, there’s an opportunity to claim the Sun Belt title after finishing second in the league with a 6-2 mark last season.
On the other sideline, South Alabama is desperate for a victory. The Jaguars opened the year with Ole Miss and Oklahoma State and lost by a combined score of 91 to 34. After a win over Alabama A&M on Sept. 16, South Alabama stumbled in overtime (29-23) against Idaho and lost to Louisiana Tech 34-16 on Sept. 30. At 1-4, the margin for error to get back to a bowl game is small. The Jaguars still have four road games left and host an improving ULM team and Arkansas State later this season. Coach Joey Jones is also in the final year of his contract, so the rest of the year is all about building a case to secure a long-term deal for 2018 and beyond.
South Alabama at Troy
Kickoff: Wednesday, Oct. 11 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Troy -17
Three Things to Watch
1. Troy RB Jordan Chunn Against South Alabama’s Defense
In Troy’s upset victory against LSU on Sept. 30, the Trojans simply dominated the line of scrimmage. On 42 carries, the offense accumulated 206 yards and three scores for an average of 4.9 yards per carry. The lead back for coach Neal Brown’s offense is senior Jordan Chunn, who rushed for 191 of the 206 yards against LSU and enters Wednesday night’s game with 490 on the season. Chunn has posted back-to-back 100-yard efforts, and as his 17 receptions indicate, he’s also a good receiver out of the backfield for quarterback Brandon Silvers. The Trojans entered the year needing to break in three new starters on the offensive line, but this unit seems to be finding the right mix as the year progresses. The development of the line is critical to Chunn’s success, especially with a tough South Alabama run defense up next.
As part of a prolific 2016 campaign, Chunn rushed for 143 yards and two touchdowns on 23 attempts in Troy’s 28-21 victory over South Alabama. Will the Jaguars have better luck this year in containing Chunn? South Alabama is limiting opponents to 129 rushing yards per game through the first five contests, with Oklahoma State (163) posting the most yardage so far. The Jaguars have not allowed an opponent to finish a game with a per-carry average higher than 4.9 and surrendered just one run of 30 yards or more. Freshman linebacker Riley Cole (30) is one of the leaders up front, with Finesse Middleton (four tackles for a loss) and Tyree Turner (three) wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage from the defensive line.
With Chunn aiming for his third consecutive 100-yard game this season and coming off a huge performance against LSU, can South Alabama find a way to contain the Troy rushing attack?
2. Troy QB Brandon Silvers
Troy’s quarterback Brandon Silvers earned the first-team All-Sun Belt spot in the league’s official preseason award voting. But the senior is off to a slow start in 2017. Through five games, he’s completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 1,241 yards and two touchdowns. Silvers has tossed two picks and his worst games by yardage came against the top two defenses – Boise State and LSU – on the schedule so far. While it’s fair to say he’s off to a slow start, there’s no reason to panic for Troy’s offense. With a loaded receiving corps and improving offensive line, it seems it’s only a matter of time before Silvers has a big performance in 2017. Could Wednesday night deliver that breakout game?
South Alabama enters Wednesday night’s matchup with the No. 9 ranked pass efficiency defense in the Sun Belt. The Jaguars have allowed 11 passing scores through five games and opposing signal-callers are connecting on 65.4 percent of their throws against this secondary. This unit had to break in three new starters over the offseason, as well as adjust for the loss of Jalen Thompson (a projected starter) due to academics.
When Silvers throws, he will be targeting Deondre Douglas (22 catches), Emanuel Thompson (20), Damion Willis (14) and Tevaris McCormick (15). Can South Alabama’s secondary slow this passing attack down and limit the damage done through the air? In order for the Jaguars to do so, they need to generate a pass rush with their defensive front and keep everything in front of them in the secondary. Troy has a lot of firepower and experience on this side of the ball and a few big plays by this offense would quickly put the game out of reach.
3. South Alabama’s Offense
South Alabama entered the 2017 season with question marks at receiver and on the offensive line from a unit that scored only 25.4 points per game in 2016. So far, it’s clear the Jaguars haven’t found all of the necessary answers to their personnel concerns on offense. South Alabama is averaging only 23.6 points per game and 5.3 yards per play. Additionally, the Jaguars are converting just 23.3 percent of their third-down attempts and rank near the bottom of the Sun Belt in plays of 40 yards or more.
Injuries are partially to blame for the slow start from the Jaguars’ attack. Dallas Davis started 10 games as the team’s starting quarterback last season but offseason shoulder surgery opened the door for Marshall transfer Cole Garvin to claim the No. 1 spot on the depth chart for the opener at Ole Miss. Garvin completed 19 of 31 throws for 204 yards and one touchdown against the Rebels but suffered an ankle injury in the Week 2 defeat against Oklahoma State. Garvin missed the next two contests versus Alabama A&M and Idaho before returning against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 30. The junior completed 21 of 45 throws for 235 yards and one interception in his return to the starting lineup. The extra time to rest and prepare since the loss to the Bulldogs should help Garvin continue to recover back to 100 percent from the ankle injury suffered in early September. But even if Garvin is back to full strength, consistent quarterback play isn’t going to be enough for this team to knock off Troy. South Alabama needs its rushing attack to find room against a Trojans’ defense that has limited opponents to just 108.8 rushing yards per game. The Jaguars have a capable duo to anchor the ground game, as Xavier Johnson leads the team with 345 yards, and Tra Minter checks in second with 191 yards.
If Troy’s defense keeps South Alabama’s ground game in check, Garvin and the passing attack will have to carry this offense – and there could be a lot of long-yardage situations for a team that has struggled on third downs in 2017. The Trojans have allowed eight passing scores this year but this secondary ranks near the top of the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense.
Will the Jaguars be able to consistently move the ball on Wednesday night? The offensive line will play a key role in this unit’s success, as Jones’ team must establish the run and keep the offense into more manageable third-down situations. And when Garvin drops back to throw, he has to have time to scan downfield against a pass rush that has registered nine sacks through five games.
With a bye week and extra time to prepare for this matchup, Troy shouldn’t have a letdown after the big victory against LSU. The Trojans are loaded with firepower on offense, and the line should continue to improve in the second half of the season. With Silvers and Chunn leading the way, it’s tough to see South Alabama’s defense generating enough stops in the second half to keep this one close. The Jaguars are giving up over six yards per play, and the balanced attack by Troy will create plenty of headaches for Jones and coordinator Kane Wommack. When South Alabama has the ball, getting consistent and mistake-free production out of Garvin is a must. The Trojans lead the Sun Belt in rush defense, so finding lanes on the ground won’t be easy. If Garvin can connect downfield a couple of times, that should allow the Jaguars to find a few more openings for their running backs. That’s a lot of ifs on South Alabama’s sideline. Troy is the better team, has more firepower on offense and should pull away for a comfortable victory in the second half.