JONESBORO, Ark. – Arkansas State proved harder to kill than kudzu on Saturday night, but the Red Wolves didn’t fully understand the character of the Troy Trojans.
It took everything – offense, defense, special teams, some good fortune and, at times, prayer – but Brandon Silvers’ 14-yard touchdown pass to Deondre Douglas with just 17 seconds remaining gave Troy a wild 32-25 victory over the Red Wolves and a share of the Sun Belt Conference championship.
Troy’s exhausted defense, strafed by ASU quarterback Justice Hansen for 437 yards through the air, gave up two touchdowns in the final three minutes that turned the Trojans’ 24-13 lead into a 25-24 deficit.
That second touchdown, a 39-yard pass from Hansen to Christian Booker, gutted the Trojans with just 1:28 remaining.
Silvers, a four-year starter, rallied the Trojans on a nine-play, 72-yard drive to the program’s first football conference title since 2010.
“It takes poise,” Troy coach Neal Brown said of what it takes to drive a team to a winning touchdown on the road with so much on the line. “Brandon is a veteran. That’s not the first drive we’ve won with him. I think that’s five over the last two years we’ve won on a final drive type of game.
“We finished. This game was almost like the tale of our season, because every victory – with the exception of one or two – we’ve been kind of up and down. It hasn’t always been pretty. We haven’t always played great from start to finish. But the characteristic of this team I really like is they have grit. They find ways to get it done.”
Douglas said the result was of hours and hours of practice.
“We practice that drive every day in practice. We executed everything we had done in practice,” said Douglas, who finished with seven receptions for 74 yards. “On the touchdown, preplay, I looked out at the defense and they called a corner route. I saw the safety was inside of the hash and I knew it was a touchdown. The corner had to run with our outside receiver. Honestly, that was an automatic touchdown for the defense they were in.”
Douglas made a tougher – and just as important – catch earlier in that drive. On fourth-and-5 from the Arkansas State 38, he caught a crossing route over the middle for 19 yards to the 19.
“That’s one of my favorite plays. That’s one of our go-to plays,” the receiver said. “When they called it in the game, (fellow receiver) John Johnson looked at me and he said, ‘Deondre, we need you right here. We practice this long enough.’”
The execution resulted in a league championship, not to mention a beaming smile from Douglas.
“It feels great. I’ve never been a champ,” the senior said. “I’ll tell you what, this is one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Troy’s offense was held to just three first downs and 87 total yards in the first half. The Trojans’ defense and special teams kept them in the game.
Blace Brown intercepted Hansen in the end zone late in the first quarter, his 11th career pick. And after the Red Wolves scored first on a field goal early in the second, Troy freshman Marcus Jones of Enterprise returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards to the end zone.
“Coach (Cornelius) Williams set up a great scheme,” Jones said. “He told me to go outside. They had one guy go outside. He said as soon as you see the seam just go ahead and hit it full speed. That’s what I did.”
Jones wasn’t done. Midway through the fourth quarter he picked off a Hansen pass in the end zone and returned it 100 yards, officially, for a touchdown that extended Troy’s lead to 24-13. Jones said it was a play the Red Wolves had run against him earlier.
“They got me on the first play, but it was incomplete. They did a double-post,” he said. “The first time I jammed him and stayed on him. The second time I jammed him and watched the quarterback’s eyes. He threw it and I caught it.”
He didn’t know about returning it all the way, however.
“But Tron Folsom was right there with me, leading the way and telling me where to go,” Jones said.
“We knew what kind of player we were getting,” Brown said when asked about Jones. “Did I know he was going to be this big a factor this early? I didn’t. But I knew he was going to be a good player.
“We probably recruited him as hard or harder than any player we’ve recruited over three years. It paid off. He played almost every snap on defense. He had a 100-yard interception return for a TD, a kickoff return for a TD. If he’s not the player of the week in the conference they need to give that thing back.”
Jones played because he had to. The Trojans were shorthanded on both sides of the ball as a physical game took its toll.
“For us to win this, with as many players who got injured – this week and this game we had eight guys go down,” Brown said. “We’ve been really healthy all year. It catches up to you. We’re in Week 15 and the 12th game. It catches up to you. But our guys had a next-man-up mentality.”
They also have been there before. Silvers couldn’t help but note the similarity of last season’s regular-season finale, when Troy fell just short against Georgia Southern on the road with a chance to clinch a piece of the Sun Belt with a victory.
“The whole (last) drive was like last year,” the quarterback said. “We wanted to go down there and score. We didn’t do that last year. I’m just glad we got it done this year. That was not good coming off the field at Georgia Southern. With 1:28 left and no timeouts tonight, I was not going through that again.”
Senior linebacker Sam Lebbie and his teammates rushed to the stands to salute the folks who made the trip from home. The Sound of the South pep band, stationed in the upper deck for the game, moved down to the lower level after the game.
“I’ve been waiting for this since I got here,” Lebbie said. “We lost to Georgia 66-0 (in 2014). To finally do this my last game, I’m just happy and proud of be a Trojan.”
Silvers said it was “full redemption.”
“I love going on the road, I love people in the stands talking behind my back. I love it,” he said. “It makes me want to play even better so I could go right over there and let them shut up. That’s always fun. I’m excited for our whole program and our fan base.”