JONESBORO — It will be physical. It always is with Troy.
Arkansas State and Troy have earned a mutual respect for one another since the Trojans joined the Sun Belt Conference nearly a decade ago.
The majority of their meetings have been close, physical battles with deep-reaching conference implications. Each of the past seven conference championships have been won or shared by one of the two programs.
So when Arkansas State (1-1) and Troy meet this evening to open Sun Belt play, nothing less than a punishing slugfest is expected. That’s just the type of rivalry these two programs have developed.
“They’re a physical ball team, but I think we’re also pretty physical,” ASU sophomore center Bryce Giddens said. “It’s going to be a good matchup, especially in the trenches.”
Kickoff for tonight’s conference opener between the Red Wolves and Trojans is 6:30 p.m. at Liberty Bank Stadium. The game will be televised on ESPNU.
Giddens knows of Troy’s physicality as well as anybody. He got a firsthand look at how ferociously the two teams play as a freshman last year.
“There’s a bit of a rivalry between ASU and Troy for sure,” Giddens said. “It’s going to be a good game. It always is.”
One play from last year’s game in particular left a lasting impression on Giddens and most of the Red Wolves.
With Arkansas State clinging to a 41-34 lead in the final minute, the Red Wolves lined up in their Victory formation to run out the clock. However, a Troy defender swiped the ball free before Giddens could snap it and a dog-pile ensued as both teams fought for the football.
One by one officials pulled players off the pile.
Somehow, Arkansas State quarterback Ryan Aplin was at the bottom of it with the football tucked tightly away. He was bloody, battered and bruised from the beating he took to maintain possession.
“The ball got loose when we were trying to take a knee,” Giddens recalled. “He fought for it, really just him and a bunch of Troy guys, and all I know is he came out on top with that ball. … He had a bloody nose, blood coming from his lip.”
It’s that memory of Aplin and what the former quarterback endured to seal a win over Troy that ASU enters this evening’s combat with. But it’s really nothing new.
Stories about similar confrontations have been passed down from one player to another over the years. With those things in mind, the Red Wolves are expecting another war on the field.
“When I first came here, a lot of players told me about the history of this (series),” ASU running back David Oku said. “It just seemed like crazy things happened against Troy, like the bad things always happened. Yeah, I heard some stories and I expect it to be a good one.”
Junior safety Sterling Young has never lost to Troy, but he’s clearly got respect for the Trojans. Experience has taught Young not to look past them.
“It’s crazy how physical they want to play and how they’ll fight for extra yards,” Young said. “We’ve got to match their physicality and make sure we come and bring it. … I would say they are one of the harder-hitting teams we play.”
ASU quarterback Adam Kennedy will get his first taste of the Trojans tonight.
Kennedy, a senior transfer from Utah State, passed for 272 yards and rushed for 74 in a 38-9 loss to Auburn last week. He also took several shots that left him sore and bruised.
But after a couple of days to recover and light practices on Tuesday and Wednesday, he feels ready to go again.
Kennedy figures Troy will be hard-hitting just like Auburn. Of course, he’s heard the stories, too.
“We were talking about how physical Auburn was and all the guys were like ‘Hey, round two this week,’” Kennedy said. “Troy’s got some big hitters on their team apparently from what I’ve been told and what I’ve seen on film. … They told me to be ready for some big hits.”
While both teams open conference play this evening, Arkansas State will follow with three more non-conference games. The Red Wolves finish their schedule with six straight Sun Belt matchups.
Considering both Troy and ASU have had a hand in each of the last seven conference titles, tonight’s matchup could again have an impact on the conference race — even just one game into it.
Both want to get a leg up on the competition. Neither wants to fall into a hole with so much of the season left to play.
“It’s conference play and that’s different,” ASU coach Bryan Harsin said. “These are common opponents that you see each and every year. As we get into it, there’s something special about that and it should be important. … As you get into your conference you always have that mindset of winning your conference and that starts this week.”