The Liberty Flames and Troy Trojans will meet on the gridiron for the first time in 25 years on Saturday afternoon. The two squads split a home-and-home series in 1992 and 1993 when both were members of Division I-AA. The Flames won in Lynchburg, 9-7, on October 17, 1992. That was Troy’s only loss the entire 1992 season. The Trojans got revenge the following year, defeating Liberty 35-13 on their home field before advancing to the semifinals of the playoffs later that season.
A lot has changed over the past 25 years though. Troy joined the FBS ranks in 2001, and has quickly established itself as one of the premier G5 programs. The Trojans have advanced to 7 bowl games, including two straight. They became the first football program in the Sun Belt Conference’s history to be ranked in the top 25, debuting at #25 late in 2016. Troy is, simply, a winning football program. Their 26 wins over the last 3 seasons are tied for the 8th most in the country and the most wins among G5 programs. The Trojans are 12-1 in its last 13 games.
Liberty is 2-0 all-time against Sun Belt opponents, with wins coming against Appalachian State and Georgia State. Saturday will be the first time a Sun Belt opponent has ever visited Williams Stadium.
“Their program has been very good over many years,” Coach Gill said of Troy. “Neal Brown has done a fantastic job. They beat my Alma mater, Nebraska. He is probably one of the coaches in the football world that his offensive mind is well thought of in this profession.”
That offensive mind will be tested a bit as the Trojans are without starting quarterback Kaleb Barker who suffered a torn ACL against Georgia State last Thursday night. Barker was ranked 4th nationally for completion percentage at 73.0% prior to his injury. Backup Sawyer Smith is capable though, as he’s seen playing time in all 6 games for Troy this season.
“I don’t see (Barker’s injury) changing their offense in what they do scheme wise,” Gill said. “Sawyer Smith is a bigger guy, a thicker guy. He can run the football, he can throw the football. He’s a duel threat guy. They’re not going to change what they do. They do use their quarterbacks in the run game quite a bit.”
Defensive coordinator Robert Wimberly doesn’t see any drop off from Barker to Smith. “When Smith came in, they didn’t drop a beat against Georgia State. They didn’t take a step backwards.”
Barker and Smith have combined for 414 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns on 78 carries, which would put them as the 2nd leading rusher on the team.
“They are physical runners,” Gill said of Barker and Smith. “They don’t mind the contact. I anticipate them to do the same thing with their quarterbacks. They run their guys just like they’re running backs.”
In addition to the quarterbacks’ ability to run the ball, Troy also has very talented running backs, led by B.J. Smith and Jabir Daughtry-Frye. That combo has combined for nearly 800 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns through 6 games. Troy ranks 29th in rushing yards per game, while Liberty ranks 126 out of 130 FBS teams in stopping the run.
“Their running backs are as good as what we’re going to see this year,” Gill remarked. “They are very good runners. They keep their feet running when they go through contact. They’re very hard to tackle from what I’ve seen on tape. We have to do a good job rallying to the football. We have to have a lot of guys around when we’re making tackles on those young men.”
Troy is also capable moving the ball through the air as well. They’re averaging 213 yards passing per game, but it’s yet to be seen how Sawyer Smith will fare passing the ball when he’s the main guy. So far this season, he’s completed 22-of-34 passes for 213 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions.
The Trojans will be taking on a Liberty defense that has struggled the past 4 games, allowing each opponent to amass more than 500 yards of offense. Wimberly says the problems have been in the second half, and the coaching staff will be taking measures to ensure the Flames’ defensive unit is better prepared for the final 2 quarters.
“My job is to get us to be able to finish the game,” Wimberly said. “If you watch our first 5 games, we’ve done a good job starting the game, getting into halftime feeling good, but it’s about finishing the game. Coach Gill and my staff, we sat down and had a heart to heart about things. Talking about play count with some guys to make sure that we can finish…2nd half has been the problem, (we need to) do some things to make us fresher, more diverse in play calls.”
On defense, Troy is averaging 3.33 sacks per game and has 13 takeaways so far, ranking them at #8 and #7 in the country in each of those categories, respectively. Their defensive coordinator is Vic Koenning, who is a long time defensive assistant coach at the FBS level, serving as DC at Wyoming, Clemson, Kansas State, Illinois, and North Carolina in addition to two stops at Troy as DC. He was the defensive coordinator at UNC when Liberty faced the Tar Heels in 2014.
Koenning’s Troy defensive unit is based out of a 3-4 scheme, but they will show multiple fronts and multiple schemes. First-team all-conference performer Hunter Reese leads the aggressive defensive unit with 7.5 tackles for loss in addition to his 3.5 sacks. 20 different Trojans have recorded a tackle for loss while 12 have recorded a sack this season.
Much like New Mexico State did a week ago, Troy is going to dial up pressure early and often against the Flames’ offensive unit. Buckshot, who needs just 87 passing yards to move into 4th place on Liberty’s all-time list, was harassed frequently against the Aggies. Liberty offensive coordinator Joe Dailey says the best practice for him to improve when facing pressure is to face that pressure in game action.
“It’s what every quarterback needs,” Dailey said of Buckshot facing NMSU’s pressure last week. “They need to see things they’ve never seen before. They need to go through those emotions of getting pressure – internal, external, cat calls from the side line. A number of different things they need to experience and go through so the next time that comes up, they’ve already been through it. So, they can fight back any of the uneasiness or awkwardness that accompanies that type of pressure. That was great for his growth. He continues to become a really good quarterback, and every time we get something like that thrown at us, we’re going to become that much better because he’s faced it, he’s been through it.”
“I’m excited to play Troy,” Gill said. “They’re a good football team. I still like where we’re at. We’re doing some good things. We can focus on the good, also focus on the negative, but I like to focus on the positive. I’m very pleased with where our football team is at, and where we’re going to be moving forward.”
Troy 37, Liberty 28
The Trojans have been very good in the first quarter, outscoring opponents 73-21. If they jump out ahead, it could be a long night for the Flames as Troy could go to the ground game and just wear Liberty down.