Two of the best defenses in the Sun Belt Conference took the field at Hancock Whitney Stadium on Thursday night, and the game went about like you might expect.
Troy made just enough plays to come away with a 10-6 victory over South Alabama, winning the “Battle for the Belt” for the fifth straight season. The Trojans (6-2, 4-1 Sun Belt) also took over first place in the West Division, dealing the Jaguars (5-2, 2-1) their first league loss of the year.
“I love to win all games,” first-year Troy coach Jon Sumrall said. “But I’d also like to be able to breathe a little deeper, relax and score some points too.
“Offensively we were inept at times — really a lot of self-inflicted stuff. Now, South Alabama’s good on defense. They do some things that challenge you, but we just can’t get out of our own way at times. Right now we’re trying to find out who we are on offense. … But our kids played extremely hard. We fight our tails off.”
Troy won despite scoring just one offensive touchdown — DK Billingsley’s 5-yard run in the second quarter — totaling only 266 yards of offense and going just 1-for-12 on third down. Brooks Buce also added a 51-yard field goal with 7:35 remaining to put the Trojans up by four.
South Alabama punted on 4th-and-11 from its 49 with 4:01 remaining, and Troy milked all but 12 seconds off the clock. That lone third-down conversion came during that sequence, Billingsley’s 3-yard run on third-and-1 with about three minutes left.
Troy eventually punted, with Mike Rivers pinning the Jaguars at their 12. An incomplete pass and a failed lateral play finished off the game, with the Trojans running their all-time record to 8-3 over its in-state rival.
“They were smart in how they attacked us,” South Alabama coach Kane Wommack said. “Credit them for what they did. I don’t mean to take anything away from them, but we earned that loss in all three phases, from penalties, from getting behind the sticks and then not executing in the run game well enough from a defensive standpoint on first and second down. That’s on us — South Alabama as a football team. And that’s something that we’re going to have to deal with and find a way to respond to.”
South Alabama’s offense was rendered one-dimensional by Troy’s fast and physical defensive front, which limited the Jaguars to just 31 yards rushing and a season-low 246 total yards. Starting tailback La’Damian Webb played despite suffering a hip/rib injury a week ago vs. Louisiana-Monroe, but was limited to just 12 yards on eight carries.
With South Alabama forced to pass on nearly every play, Troy’s defensive front could focus on battering Jaguars quarterback Carter Bradley. They did so to the tune of three sacks, two quarterback hurries and numerous hard hits.
Bradley completed 29 of 40 passes for 215 yards, but the Jaguars were held out of the end zone for the first time all season. Two Diego Guajardo field goals — a 41-yarder on the final play of the first half and a 32-yarder with 10:27 to play — accounted for all of South Alabama’s scoring.
South Alabama wide receivers Devin Voisin, Jalen Wayne and Caullin Lacy combined for 23 receptions, but just 211 yards. The Jaguars’ longest play of the night went for only 21 yards.
“They flowed to the ball really well, played as a team and as a unit,” Bradley said of Troy. “We have to do a better job at execution, and it starts with me.”
Billingsley ran for 86 yards on 19 carries, while Kimani Vidal added 64 on 17 attempts. Quarterbacks Jarret Doege and Gunnar Watson combined to complete 14 of 19 passes for just 138 yards, but a 15-yarder from Doege to RaJaé Johnson on fourth-and-2 set up Billingsley’s 5-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.
South Alabama missed out on a pair of major scoring opportunities in the second quarter. Bradley hit tight end Brandon Crum for 30 yards to the Troy 4 early in the second, but a holding penalty pushed the Jaguars back to the 44 and Bradley was picked off by the Trojans’ Reddy Stewart on the next play.
South Alabama got the ball back with 1:05 left in the half, and moved to the Troy 45. Bradley appeared to connect with Voisin for 41 yards to the 4, but the play was overturned after replay showed the Jaguars’ receiver juggled the ball as he fell to the ground.
“I can tell you I caught it, and the team can tell you I caught it,” Voisin said. “But ultimately the referee said I dropped it, so it didn’t count.”
The Jaguars managed to get into position for Guajardo’s first field goal for a 7-3 Troy lead at the break, but didn’t reach the red zone until the fourth quarter. Javon Solomon stopped Webb for a 3-yard loss on first down from the 17, and South Alabama had to kick a field goal again to make it 7-6.
Buce’s long field goal — which came after back-to-back sacks by South Alabama — made it 10-6 with 7:35 left. South Alabama then reached as far as the Troy 45, but T.J. Jackson stopped Webb for a loss on 2nd-and-7, then forced a Bradley incompletion on third down and the Jaguars punted.
Jackson, who briefly left the game with an ankle injury in the third quarter, had two tackles for loss, a sack and a quarterback hurry for the Trojans. T.J. Harris and Richard Jibunor also had sacks for Troy, while linebacker Carlton Martial added eight tackles.
Martial is now up to 513 career tackles, 32 behind the all-time FBS record held by former Northwestern linebacker Tim McGarigle. More importantly, the Mobile native will finish his Troy career 5-0 in the “Battle for the Belt.”
“It feels good,” said Martial, a McGill-Toolen graduate. “I don’t want to say we expect that, because we know it’s a grind. You’ve got come out here and actually play the game, prepare for a battle like this, in an environment like this. So we’re just happy to get this win.”
Troy is now bowl-eligible for the first time since 2018, and controls its destiny in the Sun Belt West race with three conference games left. The Trojans have a bye week before traveling to Louisiana on Nov. 5.
South Alabama requires one more win to reach the postseason for the first time since 2016, and likely needs to win its final five Sun Belt games and have Troy lose at least once more in the conference to win the division. The Jaguars next play Oct. 29 at Arkansas State.