Troy, Southern Miss clash in New Orleans Bowl

Published 9:33 am Sunday, December 21, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Larry Blakeney almost sounded serious when he talked about abandoning Troy’s tradition of scheduling road games against the most storied college football teams in the country.

“Anybody, anywhere, anytime — that’s something we’ve lived by for a while,” the Trojans’ coach said this week as his team prepared to meet Southern Mississippi in Sunday’s New Orleans Bowl.

“I’m trying to change it with my (athletic director) to: anybody we can beat at home.”

In many ways, Troy (8-4) had a stellar season, as its spread offense racked up more than 5,000 yards and the Trojans scored 33 points per game. They lost only once in the Sun Belt Conference, their other three setbacks coming on the road against Ohio State, Oklahoma State and LSU.

The loss to the Tigers on Nov. 15 was the toughest to swallow and very well could have inspired Blakeney’s joke about softer scheduling. Troy led 31-3 in the third quarter, only to become the victim of LSU’s greatest comeback in school history. The Tigers scored a touchdown late in the third quarter and 30 more points in the fourth for a 40-31 victory.

The timing of such an emotionally draining loss — coming in a game that had been rescheduled because of Hurricane Gustav in early September — could have been problematic. Troy needed to refocus quickly to win its conference and get a shot at what could be its second New Orleans Bowl victory in three seasons.

“Obviously, we were upset and disappointed that we lost,” Troy quarterback Levi Brown said. “It was a long ride back, that’s for sure. We were off Sunday and I dwelled on it a little bit.”

But not for long. Troy trounced its two closest competitors for the conference crown, beating Louisiana-Lafayette 48-3 and Arkansas State 35-9.

“Part of the reason we responded so well to it is just that it really showed us we can play with anybody,” Brown said. “We went to Death Valley and played the defending national champions and really played well against them and just dominated them for three quarters. … So, I guess, even though we lost, it gave us a lot of confidence knowing how well we can play.”

Southern Miss (6-6) easily could have succumbed to a crisis in confidence during a five-game losing streak that had the Golden Eagles languishing at 2-6 in late October.

Instead, they haven’t lost since.

“It was a rough point of the year and people keep asking, ‘What did you do? What did you change?'” first-year coach Larry Fedora said. “We really didn’t do anything different. We believed in what we were doing. We knew what we were doing was right. We were playing a lot of young guys and we just needed to grow up and make plays. So we sat in that room as a team and decided we were dealing with adversity and we were going to find out the true character of our football team.

“I’m proud of our team because it did reveal the character our team has.”

The Golden Eagles won with a stout defense, allowing 21 points in their last three games combined. That makes for an interesting subplot in a game featuring the Trojans’ entertaining spread attack, which accounted for a whopping 72 pass attempts at LSU.

“We try to go out there and put up a bunch of points and get a bunch of yards, so that’s the goal every game,” said Brown, who’s thrown for 1,775 yards and 14 TDs since replacing injured starter Jamie Hampton in late October.

“Their defense is playing unbelievable right now, so this should be a big challenge for us,” Brown continued. “They’re playing sound football, playing their assignments really well right now and not giving anything up.”

Southern Miss also has improved steadily on offense under the direction of redshirt freshman Austin Davis, who’s thrown for 2,852 yards and 21 touchdowns. More than a third of Davis’ passing yards (1,108) and more than half of his TDs (12) have come on passes to 6-foot-6 freshman DeAndre Brown, a prized recruit who’s been everything Southern Miss hoped.

Brown had to have faith that whoever became the Golden Eagles’ new starting quarterback this season would be able to get him the ball consistently. He hasn’t been disappointed with Davis.

“He knows defenses well. … He makes good throws and he’s a very smart quarterback,” Brown said. “That’s the good thing about him. He knows when to pull it down, when to make the right checks and keeps the offense running.”

So, too, does Southern Miss all-time rusher Damion Fletcher, who’s run for 1,235 yards and nine scores this season. Such balance on offense has Brown confident the Golden Eagles’ attack won’t be overshadowed.

“This is one of the big offenses coming up in college football,” he said.