Sun Belt Offenses Catch Up With Troy
By Paul Myerberg // May 16, 2012
While the underdog portion of the Sun Belt was moving forward, Troy was standing still. I don’t mean this in the big picture, but in one specific category: totals plays. Consider this:
–Troy led the Sun Belt in total plays run from scrimmage in each year from 2007-10. The Trojans averaged 980.3 plays per season, running at least 972 plays each year with a high of 997 plays in 2010.
–The Trojans’ offense was on the field for 867 plays last fall, which tied Florida International for fifth-most in the Sun Belt. Arkansas State led the way with 1,016 plays, followed by Louisiana-Monroe with 939 plays, Middle Tennessee with 938 plays and Louisiana-Lafayette with 893 plays.
–And the Trojans weren’t doing more with less. Last year’s offense averaged 5.3 yards per play, a program-low since 2007. Troy averaged 5.9 yards per play in 2010; 6.5 yards per play in 2009. Both totals paced the conference. Two teams, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette, tied for the S.B.C. lead at 5.7 yards per play last fall.
Allow these numbers – which don’t tell the whole story, merely a slice of the story – to help illustrate one undeniable fact about the Sun Belt as a whole: the conference is all about offense. It has been since 2006, in fact. Troy didn’t dominate the league for five years because of its defense, though that certainly provided another degree of separation between the Trojans and their conference rivals.
Troy dominated the S.B.C. because it was so far ahead offensively that others simply couldn’t keep pace. As last season indicated, the tide has turned. Offense is now in: Florida Atlantic went against the grain in hiring Carl Pelini last winter, but even that hire was made with an eye on offense, in a way. The Owls brought in Pelini to combat Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Troy, though not to replicate their blueprint.
The tide began to turn once teams like Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette hired young, energetic coaches with systems tailor-made for non-B.C.S. conference play. The Red Wolves know that they caught lightning in a bottle with Hugh Freeze: his replacement, Gus Malzahn, is a no-brainer for many reasons, but primarily because he can take Freeze’s offense-first foundation and run with it.
Come back to Troy. Now that the rest of the league has caught up to Troy – and surpassed Troy, for one season – what can the program do to reclaim its spot atop the Sun Belt? No longer can the Trojans win by doing what others can’t, by running a frenetic, fast-paced offense. Others have caught on; Troy has company.
The key for Troy is to have staying power. The Trojans were the Sun Belt’s lone constant from 2006-10. Rivals like Florida Atlantic rose up and provided a challenge but didn’t hang around for long. The Trojans don’t really need alter anything, in the sense that the program needs to make grand, wholesale changes on both sides of the ball. Nothing of the sort, in fact.
Well, let’s hedge that statement a bit. The offense does need to have balance. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Troy’s worst offensive showing of the last six years came when the running game took a steep nosedive. As noted in the preview, the Trojans dropped from 52nd nationally in rushing in 2010 to 117th a year ago.
Troy needs to run the ball with consistency. The passing game isn’t the sole answer, even with an experienced quarterback like Corey Robinson under center and five or six very intriguing targets in the passing game. The offensive line needs to toughen up, take on a more physical mentality and open up lanes on the ground.
The defense needs to do a better job taking advantage of its overall speed. Troy always recruits athletes; the Trojans do this better than any team in the S.B.C., and as well as any non-B.C.S. conference team in the country. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Rowell has made a slight tweak heading into the fall, adding a hybrid end-linebacker to the defensive front, but could he do more with the athleticism at his disposal?
Could Troy take a page out of Louisiana-Monroe’s playbook and dabble with the 3-3-5? This system allows the Warhawks to do more with less, putting under-the-radar recruits in space with a base set designed to give more talented opponents fits. In that same vein, could this defense allow Troy do more with, well, more? I’m not entirely in favor of this option, but could the Trojans use some new breath at coordinator altogether?
The important factor to consider, and one I attempted to convey in the preview, is that Troy’s football mindset isn’t broken. If Troy handles the next one or two seasons correctly, this will be a momentary pause, not a full-fledged swoon. The Trojans are still as talented as any team in the S.B.C., if not more so.
Just weather this storm. Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Western Kentucky need to prove that they can hang around the top third of the Sun Belt. Troy has already shown an ability to stick around for an extended period of time. In a change, however, Troy must show an ability to reload. Not rebuild, mind you: reload. It’s a fitting word for a conference heavily slanted towards offensive firepower.
Tags: Arkansas State, Carl Pelini, Corey Robinson, Florida Atlantic, Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze, Jeremy Rowell, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Middle Tennessee State, Sun Belt, Troy, Western Kentucky
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