Giant Killers: The Story of Troy

Since joining the big boys in 2001, the Troy Trojans have proven to be a team you don’t want to face

Face it. The Good Lord above tried to warn the major college football world of Troy’s arrival nearly 18 years ago.

After the Trojans’ first-year NCAA Division I-A football program scored its first touchdown against Southeastern Conference foe Mississippi State on October 13, 2001, a tornado steamrolled through the countryside 15 miles from Scott Field in Starkville, leading to the homecoming game’s delay of more than an hour.

“Sometimes you get signs from the man upstairs that it’s not your day,” stated MSU fan site For Whom The Cowbell Tolls.

Think about that. Only 32 days after the world was shaken by the 9-11 terror attacks, Friends was still the No. 1 TV show, George W. Bush was settling into his first year in office and a rural university in Pike County, Alabama, still went by the name Troy State.

So when those nearly anonymous Trojans returned to the field and eventually upset their hosts, 21-9, casual sports fans in St. Paul and Topeka would understandably ask, “What is Troy State?” Previously, the “Men of Troy” had referred to the University of Southern California, but Mother Nature had dropped a new meaning to the phrase onto the landscape.

“Troy’s quarterback that day was named Brock Nutter,” declared For Whom The Cowbell Tolls. “We got beat by my favorite peanut butter cookie.”

Troy State celebrates in Starkville | Photo courtesy Troy Athletics

Fast-forward to the present. Since that day, Troy dropped the “State” from its name, joined the Sun Belt Conference and, by the way, has become the giant-killers that you really don’t want your alma mater to schedule.

Don’t believe it? Don’t just ask Mississippi State. Ask LSU or Nebraska or Oklahoma State or Missouri. They’re all victims with “L’s” planted on their foreheads.

“We don’t have to beat them 365 days, we just have to beat them for one 60-minute segment of history,” said former longtime Trojans coach Larry Blakeney, the man who led this program into the brave new world of the FBS.

Whether it was Blakeney or most recently young coaching phenom Neal Brown, Pike County’s finest have been led by men who weren’t afraid to challenge the big boys and were crafty enough to beat them. A longtime Division I-AA and Division II powerhouse football program, Troy has burst onto the scene with all the subtlety of an escaped Tyrannosaurus rex.

After the Nebraska win | Courtesy Troy Athletics

“Troy isn’t afraid,” Lincoln Journal-Star writer Chris Basnett recently warned, just days before the Trojans marched into Nebraska and beat the Cornhuskers 24-19 in front of 89,360 fans on September 15, 2018.

It’s easy to understand why. The school’s alumni base was used to success on the small school circuit. Blakeney coached the team to undefeated regular seasons in 1991 and 1995 and won the Southland Conference title in Division I-AA three times. Coaches Chan Gailey and Rick Rhoades led the team to Division II championships in 1983 and 1987, respectively. And Coach Bill Atkins won the NAIA championship in 1968.

But as for the Trojans’ opponents — how could Mississippi State have seen this coming back in 2001? Troy opened its inaugural year of big-boy ball poorly, with a 42-14 thrashing at the hands of Nebraska and even lost to Miami 38-7 the week before its trip to Starkville.

Even that fateful day in Starkville, Nutter completed only 10 of 26 passes for 130 yards. But safety Rayshaun Reed intercepted MSU’s Wayne Madkin and returned it 73 yards for a touchdown to give Troy a 14-0 lead, and running back Demontray Carter scored on a 23-yard run to make it 21-0 before the Bulldogs knew what hit them. Troy sacked Madkin three times, picked him off twice and cruised to a win.

Carter finished with 111 all-purpose yards and two rushing touchdowns — and was symbolic of a philosophy that has helped propel the Trojans to this day. A high-profile transfer from Auburn after struggling academically at the SEC school, Carter was an early example that the Trojans would not shy away from accepting talented players from bigger programs who needed a second chance. He’s also an example of the type of athleticism that Blakeney, and then Brown, brought to a program that often “out-athletes” other schools of its size.

Case in point: After Oklahoma safety Will Sunderland was kicked off the team following a 2017 arrest for concealing stolen property, Brown said he vetted Sunderland and his family thoroughly and signed him. And guess who intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter last fall to secure Troy’s victory over Nebraska? Yep. Mr. Sunderland.

Between four-year transfers, junior college transfers and a healthy supply of high school kids from the Southeast, Troy has made its name.

Troy’s first year in the Sun Belt Conference, 2004, was also the first season it made a bowl game. And one of the biggest boosts to its Silicon Valley Bowl invitation came on September 9 of that year. The Trojans hosted then-No. 19-ranked Missouri and beat the Tigers 24-14 in front of a national TV audience on espn2. When it ended, many in the school-record crowd of 26,574 stormed the field and tore down a goalpost in celebration of the school’s first win over a Power 5 (then called BCS) program.

Troy versus Missouri | Courtesy Troy Athletics

It was a strange game. Troy scored on a trick play — James Samples took a lateral and threw to running back Jermaine Richardson for a 26-yard TD — and on an unlikely play. Junior Louissaint, a 277-pound guard, picked up teammate DeWhitt Betterson’s fumble in midair on his own 37 and ran for his life. Sixty-three yards later, he could be spotted dragging a cornerback into the end zone. Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever been involved in a game like this before,” while questioning whether his team lost focus after an early 14-0 lead.

“To me this is the biggest win we’ve ever had,” Blakeney said after it ended. Troy stifled Mizzou quarterback Brad Smith, a Heisman candidate and future NFL player, picking him off twice and often making him rush.

But if it was indeed Troy’s biggest win, there would be other candidates. And again, it appeared as if a higher power was trying to warn the big boys. Just three years later, espn2’s cameras would again capture a great Trojan moment. But first, on September 14, 2007, heavy rains and lightning — remnants from Hurricane Humberto — would delay for 40 minutes the start of Troy’s home battle with Oklahoma State at Movie Gallery Stadium.

Despite entering at 0-2, the aggressive, almost angry, emotional Trojans finally took the field and rolled the Cowboys 41-23. Junior quarterback Omar Haugabook passed for 371 yards and a touchdown, ran for 49 yards and two more scores, and — you guessed it — the goal posts were torn down again after the onslaught. ESPN called it “possibly Troy’s biggest win since” the Missouri game three years prior.

Larry Blakeney and Mike Gundy meet at midfield after the Troy-Oklahoma State game | Courtesy Troy Athletics

In 2008, Troy shocked LSU’s fans by racing to a 31-3 first-half lead at Tiger Stadium before eventually losing 40-31. Blakeney, who won 178 games at Troy between 1991 and 2014, had the Trojans rolling.

The Brown Era in Troy — which just ended with his recent hiring by West Virginia — was different. While Blakeney was known for power football, Brown installed a high-powered passing game that he implemented at Kentucky and Texas Tech. But here’s the common denominator — Brown’s Trojans keep upsetting people.

In 2016, Brown led Troy to its first 10-win season since moving to the FBS. He also nearly derailed Clemson’s national championship season, with his Trojans falling only 30-24 on the road to the second-ranked Tigers in the second game of the season.

Troy’s second win over an SEC foe came on September 30, 2017, when it traveled to vaunted Tiger Stadium and beat 25th-ranked LSU, 24-21. LSU running back Nick Brossette lost a fumble on the Tigers’ first offensive snap, leading to Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers’ 1-yard TD run. It was that kind of day. So, despite being a 20.5-point underdog, Troy snapped LSU’s 49-game non-conference home winning streak that had been the longest in modern college football.

Troy took home a win and $985,000 to boot — its guarantee from the game.

“Hey @LSU,” proclaimed the Troy University official twitter page, “thanks for having us down for Homecoming! We really enjoyed it!”

Most recently, on September 15, 2018, Troy beat Nebraska 24-19 in Lincoln and took home a $900,000 guarantee for doing so. It was Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost’s second game at his alma mater and part of an 0-6 start to the season for the home team.

It’s nice being giant killers. It’s nice stunning the football world. It’s even nicer making your athletic department richer while bringing home an unexpected win. H&A

Troy’s Greatest FBS Upsets

2018: Troy 24, Nebraska 19
2017: Troy 24, LSU 21
2007: Troy 41, Oklahoma State 23
2004: Troy 24, Missouri 14
2001: Troy 21, Mississippi State 9

Troy Made ‘Em Sweat (near upsets)

-2016: Clemson 30, Troy 24
-2013: Duke 38, Troy 31
-2012: Miss State 30, Troy 24
-2012: Tennessee 55, Troy 48
-2011: Arkansas 38, Troy 28
-2010: Oklahoma State 41, Troy 38
-2008: LSU 40, Troy 31
-2007: Georgia 44, Troy 34
-2006: Florida State 24, Troy 17
-2004: South Carolina 17, Troy 7
-2004: LSU 24, Troy 20
-2002: Mississippi State 11, Troy 8

All photos courtesy Troy Athletics 

Steve Kirk

Steve Kirk

A sports writer and editor for 25-plus years, Steve’s career includes stints at The Birmingham News, Florida Times-Union, The (Columbia, S.C.) State and Birmingham Post-Herald. A native of Huntsville, Alabama, he lives in the Atlanta area.
Steve Kirk

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