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Exploria Stadium will be more than just a soccer venue in Orlando, decorated in pink at 3:00 pm EST on Saturday as the site of the 7th annual Duluth Trading Company Cure Bowl. When the #24 Troy Trojans and the #25 UTSA Roadrunners take the field as champions of the Sun Belt and C-USA Conferences, they’ll be drawing more than a crowd.
Troy, with its headline-making defense, hopes to achieve their first bowl victory since 2019. Allowing the 8th-lowest average points per game in the nation, the Trojans have star players in all levels of the roster.
Defensive end T.J. Jackson and Richard Jibunor each have double-digit tackles for loss (TFL) on the season respectively with 14.5 and 10.5. In addition to leading the Trojans in TFLs, Jackson also is the top man in sacks with eight and Jibunor is right behind him with seven of his own.
Together, Troy’s defensive ends account for nearly half of the defensive front’s 40 sacks. Quite the force to be reckoned with when you also add in linebacker Carlton Martial who leads the team with 121 total tackles.
The Sun Belt champions are a solid group in their secondary. Their cornerback Reddy Steward has three of the team’s 11 interceptions on the year along with eight passes defended, leading the team in both categories.
Safety Craig Slocum, who is the school’s second-best in total tackles (96) and passes defended, anchored a squad that won four games holding their opponents to 17 points or less.
At the @CureBowl Coachs’ presser, @utsaftbl head coach Jeff Traylor spoke of the challenges he sees from a preparation standpoint for @troytrojansfootball on Friday. #BirdsUp #OneTroy @3ptcnvrsn pic.twitter.com/SB85sCS187
— Kyle Nash (@TheSoTG) December 13, 2022
The second-year head coach of the Roadrunners and back-to-back Conference USA Coach of the Year Jeff Traylor paid a lot of respect to his bowl opponent when talking about preparing for them.
Over and above preparing for a tough opponent, coach Traylor also shared he had considered not coaching the game since his father’s passing Monday night. What ultimately drove his decision to be there for his team was he and his mother agreeing that his dad would not have wanted him to miss the experience of coaching the game.
UTSA will represent a challenge for the Trojans’ intimidating defense as the nation’s 12th-highest offense in points per game with quarterback Frank Harris. Harris has completed a surgical 71% of his passes, throwing for 3,865 yards and 31 touchdowns with only seven interceptions.
Showing skills as a dual threat, he’s also turned in nearly five yards a carry, running for 588 yards on 120 attempts for nine touchdowns.
A lot of that production came from his top receivers Zakhari Franklin and Joshua Cephus. Franklin has turned in 1,100 yards receiving with 14 touchdowns while Cephus has 985 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
While Harris intends to return for an unprecedented 7th year in San Antonio, he did say that winning the program’s first bowl game would be the crowning achievement of his final year in the Sun Belt before heading into the American Athletic Conference where UTSA will play next year.
That’s not to say the Roadrunners won’t have a presence running the ball. Running back Kevorian Barnes ran for 713 yards on 114 carries with six touchdowns while splitting time with the now-injured Brendan Brady.
The ability to move the ball in multiple ways is part of why UTSA has scored 30 or more points in all but one game, when they lost to #21 Texas, only scoring 20 points. This also includes two 50-burgers and a 48-point outing over UTEP to secure the C-USA championship in their final year as a member of the conference before moving in the American in 2023.
The Roadrunners’ defense isn’t to be ignored either. Helping to form what is a well-rounded roster, safety Clifford Chatman and cornerback Corey Mayfield both lead the team with 13 passes defended. Chatman also leads the team in interceptions with four while also being the team’s second-highest tackler.
It might seem easy to overlook the Trojans on offense considering the aforementioned low-scoring victories. However, Troy has lit up the scoreboard with 34 points or more in their final three games, including 45 over Coast Carolina in the Sunbelt Conference Championship.
In his rookie year as the Troy’s head coach, Jon Sumrall came in knowing that finding the offense’s identity would be essential to success.
— Kyle Nash (@TheSoTG) December 13, 2022
Quarterback Gunnar Watson has certainly done his part to help the Trojans find success in the season, throwing for 62% completions with 2,705 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions to help keep opponent’s defenses honest if they focus on the ground game.
However, Kimani Vidal is easily the primary threat for the Trojans attack, tallying 209 carries for 1,059 yards with 5.1 yards per carry and 19 touchdowns. DJ Billingsly is also a bruising back in his own right with 134 carries for 656 yards and eight touchdowns.
The challenge for UTSA’s defense is to first stop Vidal and the Troy running game. Linebacker Jamal Ligon, who’s the team’s leading tackler with 86 as well their top sack artist and their TFL leader, linebacker Trey Moore have huge roles to play in the mission.
Should Ligon, Moore and the defensive front limit the running production of the Trojans and rack up a lead early, Watson could be in for a rough day turning the ball over. That means Harris will have to lead the Roadrunners past a tough defense without making any mistakes in what could be limited possessions if Tory controls the clock running the ball for long drives.
This game has the makings to be one of the best in this bowl game’s history playing for a good cause.