COLUMBIA — The Troy Trojans have made a name for themselves as a team unafraid to play road games against Power 5 programs.
It's a practice Missouri fans might be familiar with: Troy came to Columbia and knocked off the No. 17 Tigers 24-14 in 2004. The Trojans have played 24 games against nine different Southeastern Conference programs, and though the 3-21 record (including a 1-2 mark against Missouri) isn't glamorous, Troy rarely takes a buy game without also putting up a fight.
The last three years under Neal Brown, now head coach at West Virginia, saw three 10-win seasons and his teams record upsets at Nebraska and LSU, and a close 30-24 loss at No. 3 Clemson in 2016. Since 2012, the Trojans have averaged one game per season against SEC teams, including a pair of one-possession games against Mississippi State and at Tennessee in 2012.
Offensive coordinator Derek Dooley has seen Troy (2-2) up close, then, as has quarterback Kelly Bryant. Missouri (3-1, 1-0 SEC) had two weeks to prepare for today's 3 p.m. kick on SEC Network. This game did not sneak up on anyone in the Tigers' program.
"It starts with their program," Dooley said Tuesday. "They have a program that takes a lot of pride in playing these Power-5 schools and going there and beating them, and they do it every year. They've got a lot of good football players, they have a great coaching staff, they play hard. It's, to me, no different than playing in SEC games, and that's how we're approaching it."
Bryant, who was current Houston Texans' franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson's backup in 2016 at Clemson, did not play against Troy, but he got a good look at the Trojans nonetheless.
"I definitely know about Troy," Bryant said. "I think it was my sophomore year we played them at Clemson, a game that came down to the fourth quarter, so very familiar with those guys. I think they've got, like, 'Power 5 killers' is what they call themselves, so they're a team, a program that prides themselves on playing the bigger schools, coming to that environment and knocking teams off. So we're going to have to be ready for that and ready to come play."
The Trojans' current head coach is former Auburn and Arizona State offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. He and senior quarterback Kaleb Barker have the offense humming, averaging 40.8 points per game and 6.57 yards per play.
Barker has completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,367 yards, 13 touchdowns and just two interceptions, and Troy's offensive scheme is calling upon him to throw the ball an average of 41.5 times per game. The Trojans pass 54 percent of the time, and two-thirds of their offense and 13 of their 20 touchdowns this season have come through the air.
"He is as talented of a guy as will see all year and he can make every throw," head coach Barry Odom said of Barker. "He's got really a level of confidence in the way that he plays. He bounces back up If he if he has a mistake or whatever it was right back. He runs really well. He's a really good football player."
Where Troy is lacking this season, the reason for its two losses, is the defense, and particularly the pass defense. The Trojans have beaten FCS Campbell and a bad Akron team handily, and lost shootouts to Southern Mississippi and Arkansas State. Troy's run defense is allowing 2.32 yards per carry — fewer than the Tigers' stingy 2.95 — and an average of 76 yards per game.
Those are similar numbers to the South Carolina defense Missouri faced two weeks ago, when it ran 54 times for 194 yards, a 3.59 per-carry average.
For Troy, it starts up front with linebacker Carlton Martial, who leads the team with 43 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss this season, nose tackle Will Choloh Jr., second with 20 tackles, and nickle back or 'spear' TJ Harris, who has 17 tackles.
"They're good. They're good up front, they're good in the box," Odom said. "And then they've got great support and play with leverage. Disruptive, you know. They're quick. They do a lot of things from the second level getting penetration, so we've got to make sure that, No. 1, we're assignment sound, and then No. 2, we know that we're going to have to finish the runs. We've got to win the physical battle."
Odom emphasized getting plays for positive yardage on early downs is important against an aggressive defense like Troy's that work hard to put offenses behind schedule and bring pressure when it happens.
The Tigers' outlet should be in the passing game. Troy is allowing an average of 10.2 yards per attempt and 316.3 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks, and that's counting the games against Campbell (93 passing yards) and Akron (203 passing yards).
Against Southern Miss and Arkansas State, the Trojans allowed an eye-popping 13.3 yards per attempt, a number that only Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts is surpassing through four games. Troy allowed 514 passing yards and three touchdowns on a 78.4 percent completion rate to the Golden Eagles, and 455 yards and four scores on a 72.2 completion percentage with two interceptions against the Red Wolves.
Missouri should have the ability to do something similar today. Johnathon Johnson, Jalen Knox, Kam Scott and Dominic Gicinto have all had quiet starts to the season after strong contributions a year ago; Gicinto is without a catch. Bryant has thrown eight touchdown passes, but to four different receivers. Knox came close twice against Southeast Missouri State but was hauled down inside the red zone on both of his deep catches, and Albert Okwuegbunam, who leads the team with four touchdown receptions, is sure to be another matchup nightmare. There's also Tyler Badie and Larry Rountree III, who have continued to make plays as pass-catchers, and could figure to make an impact there to open up the run game.
Troy's aggression up front and dedication to stopping the run means its defensive backs are asked to defend 1-on-1, and those matchups did not go the Trojans' way in their two losses.
"I think a couple of (Arkansas State's big gains) were just some 1-on-1s where a guy's right there in position and the receiver made a really good play," Dooley said. "I'm not really sure it's anything they're doing schematically, they just gave up a few chunks and had some good throws and catches, but I'm sure they'll try to eliminate that this week."
The Tigers' pass defense should face its first real test, and Missouri's receivers will be similarly tested. If the Tigers can't win 1-on-1 battles on the perimeter when they see them today, Bryant might see himself in charge of a game against Troy that comes down to the fourth quarter.