On one side, there’s an offense that’s put up video-game numbers over the past month, averaging 548 total yards and more than 43 points per game.
On the other, there’s a program that’s had a long-standing tradition for smothering defense, one that has forced the second-most turnovers in the country since 2016 including 49 interceptions in that time.
They square off with a lot on the line Saturday.
Although the numbers bear some resemblance, it’s not Alabama-LSU, even though they’re in common states. Troy is just over a two-hour drive from Tuscaloosa, and Lafayette’s less than an hour down I-10 from Baton Rouge where that Tiger-Crimson Tide clash is set Saturday night.
But UL-Lafayette and Troy also have something riding on the outcome of their 2:30 p.m. Sun Belt Conference matchup at Troy’s Veterans Memorial Stadium.
The teams lead their respective Sun Belt divisions with four regular-season games remaining. Troy (6-2, 4-0) is tied with Georgia Southern atop the East, while the Cajuns (4-4, 2-2) share the lead with UL-Monroe in the West.
“We have to maintain pace with the other top teams in the East,” said Troy coach Neal Brown, whose team has won 10 straight Sun Belt games.
“It’s key for us because we’ve put ourselves in a good position,” said Cajuns coach Billy Napier, whose squad has won three out of four since a 1-3 start. “We’re going to continue to try to get a little better, and I do think we’re doing that.”
If recent history is any indication, Napier’s correct. His squad was popped by two SEC West powers and lost its Sun Belt opener at home to Coastal Carolina in September. Since then, they’ve won three offensive shootouts, including last Saturday’s 47-43 home win over Arkansas State.
The Cajuns only ran 58 offensive plays and still rolled up 547 offensive yards against the Red Wolves, and that was only their third-best yardage output of the month. Two weeks earlier, UL-Lafayette scored its most points ever against an FBS team and set a school mark with 759 offensive yards — 344 rushing and 415 passing — in a 66-38 win over New Mexico State.
“We should put up points every game,” said guard Ken Marks, part of a front that has the Cajuns leading the Sun Belt in rushing (232.1) and only allowed two sacks in those three October wins. “If we don’t put up points that’s our own downfall, us not executing. If we go with the plan they give us and we execute it correctly, we should score every time.”
“They’re the No. 1 offense in the country right now,” Brown said. “They’re extremely balanced. I’ve been really impressed with the quarterback (Andre) Nunez, he’s been extremely efficient. And they ran the ball 200 yards against Alabama which is saying something.”
But Troy, Alabama, is where potent offenses have gone to die. The Trojans lead the Sun Belt in rush defense, allowing only 130 yards per game, and over the past two seasons Troy ranks fourth nationally in negative plays forced (sacks, tackles for losses, interceptions and fumble recoveries). Fully 15 percent of opponents’ snaps in that time have resulted in one of those outcomes.
“They have a great tradition and history, on defense in particular,” Napier said. “If you dig into their history, this is a defense that rarely gives up 30 points, 25 points.”
Napier has an idea of the defensive intensity the Trojans boast. He was a graduate assistant when current Troy defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was on Clemson’s staff.
“(Koenning's) always been dynamic on defense,” Napier said. “He’s got a tremendous history of having good defenses because they’re very good at what they do.”
The Trojans have had to rely on defense more since quarterback Kaleb Barker was lost for the year with a torn ACL in early October.
Backup Sawyer Smith threw for three scores in Troy’s 38-17 home win over South Alabama 11 days ago in its last outing. B.J. Smith, who has four straight 100-yard rush games — the second longest active in the country — rushed for 170 yards in that Tuesday win.
“Like most teams, they narrowed down their package initially,” Napier said of Barker’s loss. “But you can see that they’re opening it back up and they’re getting back to being themselves.”
Nunez had a big night one week ago against A-State, throwing for 295 yards and two scores, and has completed 67.4 percent of his passes this season after an 18-of-26 outing Saturday. He directed an offense that averaged 9.6 yards per play, getting a lot of help from 65- and 72-yard scoring bursts from Elijah Mitchell and Raymond Calais. Trey Ragas, the third part of the three-headed rush attack, is second behind Smith in rushing in the Sun Belt (91.8) and had the winning two-yard touchdown run in the final 80 seconds.
“We’re all learning together,” Napier said. “I’m a rookie head coach, just like we have rookie players. We could have done some things better all year long, and we have to learn from that. I think we’ve done a good job of that, but we know the challenge we face this weekend.”