Story by Caleb Thomas
Photo by Ansley Miller
On an electric, raucous Saturday at Veterans Memorial Stadium, Troy won its league-leading seventh Sun Belt championship. Gunnar Watson, RaJae’ Johnson, and the rest of the Trojans jumped out to an early lead they never relinquished.
“We hadn’t played a complete game, in my opinion, all year,” said Head Coach Jon Sumrall. “We had started slow sometimes, but we started fast tonight, and Troy football is back.”
Jon Sumrall orchestrated a stunning turnaround in his first year as coach, winning a conference title with a program that was coming off three straight five-win seasons. Confetti rained, goalposts fell and fans dashed onto the field, beginning a joyous celebration of the school’s first Sun Belt Championship since 2017.
Sun Belt Championship MVP Gunnar Watson had his best game of the season, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Dynamic wideout RaJae’ Johnson was the recipient of many of those passes, raking in four catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns.
Saturday proved the explosiveness of an offense that had been stagnant at times– it was the perfect culmination to a hard-fought season.
After starting with the ball and driving down the field to take a 3-0 lead, the Trojans did what they have all year and played physical, dominant defense. Troy forced Coastal Carolina, led by Sun Belt player of the year Grayson McCall, into a three-and-out.
The offense didn’t wait long to add on, as Gunnar Watson threw a strike to Deshon Stoudemire for a 65-yard touchdown. For the rest of the first quarter and most of the second, that was the trend.
Explosive offense followed by stout defense was the norm for the Trojans, who scored 17 points in the first quarter, the most they’ve scored all season to open a game.
On the Chanticleers’ first drive of the second quarter, Carlton Martial flattened McCall to force a punt. Martial finished with nine tackles, which brought his career total to 563– tied for Troy’s all-time record. Two plays later, DK Billingsley widened the lead to 24 with a 33-yard touchdown scamper.
The lead reached 31 in the half after a 67-yard touchdown pass from Watson to RaJae’ Johnson. However, McCall led the Chanticleers down the field where they finally found paydirt with 0:29 left in the half. Troy led 31-7 at halftime.
Coastal Carolina came out of the locker room determined to make a comeback, with Freshman wide receiver Jared Brown scoring on an end around. Troy stuffed the two-point conversion attempt, making it a 31-13 game.
While it looked like the momentum might be shifting, Troy extinguished that hope – RaJae’ Johnson scored his second touchdown of the day, a highlight reel one-handed catch and run. T.J. Jackson promptly forced and recovered a fumble to give the offense the ball inside the ten.
While it looked like the Chanticleer defense might make a stand, pass interference and roughing the snapper penalties handed Troy not one, but two fresh sets of downs. DK Billingsley took advantage of that, punching it in from three yards out to hand Troy a 45-13 lead late in the third quarter. It was the third score of the night for Billingsley, who averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
Grayson McCall led another Coastal Carolina drive down the field, culminating in a nice touchdown grab by Senior receiver Sam Pinckney. Yet again, the Chanticleers missed a two-point conversion, keeping the Troy lead at 26.
Although Coastal Carolina scored another touchdown to make it a 45-26 game with 6:09 left, it wasn’t enough.
In the end, a TJ Harris interception iced the game, and the celebration commenced. Next up for the Trojans is the Duluth Trading Cure Bowl in Orlando on Dec. 16. Their opponent is UTSA, who won the C-USA championship game last Friday.