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Troy Trojans once again rebound from rough start to make Sun Belt title game, facing App State

The Troy Trojans lost on a Hail Mary the last time they faced Appalachian State and were perfect the rest of the way.

Once again, the Trojans have rebounded strongly from a down-to-the-wire defeat and a 1-2 start to earn the right to host the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game. The opponent on Saturday just happens to be those Mountaineers (8-4).

“I’m happy that App State won and we get to play them in the championship game, because who doesn’t love a good comeback story and a redemption story?” Troy safety Dell Pettus said.

This season, the Trojans (10-2) have won nine straight games since losing in back-to-back weeks, 42-13 at then-No. 15 Kansas State and 16-14 to No. 24 James Madison. Last year they wrapped up coach Jon Sumrall’s first season with an 11-game winning streak, a Sun Belt championshipand a No. 19 ranking — the first time Troy has finished a season ranked.

The Trojans didn’t have quite the Hail Mary moment this time. But they fell to James Madison after missing one 49-yard field goal and losing out on at least another chance from a similar distance in the final minute with an intentional grounding penalty.

They rebounded from that much like last year’s team did after Christian Horn caught a tipped ball for a 53-yard touchdown to give Appalachian State a 32-28 victory. That followed a safety that gave the Mountaineers life.

Troy is 21-2 since that game.

“What I told the kids in that moment, that loss would not define us, how we responded to it would. I think you’ve seen our response,” Sumrall said. “It’s kind of a full-circle moment to go back and play those guys.”

Appalachian State has its own tale of resilience, having won five straight and beaten James Madison 26-23 in overtime.The losses during a 3-4 start came by a collective 19 points.

“That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of, the way we came together, pulled ourselves out of a hole and now we have a chance to play for a conference championship,” Mountaineers coach Shawn Clark said.

Ditto for Troy. Again.

The Trojans have won 10 regular season games in consecutive years for the first time since 1999 and 2000 while still playing in FCS.

The league’s top defense has allowed just 88 points over its last 10 games and racked up 20 sacks in the last three. Javon Solomon’s 14 sacks is tied for second nationally and Richard Jibunor has nine and a team-best 16 tackles for loss. Pettus is set to start his 60th consecutive game.

The Trojans have five starters and a couple of key reserves taking advantage of their sixth year allowed because of COVID. Quarterback Gunnar Watson, a 40-game starter, is the only one of the 43 FBS quarterbacks in their sixth year who stuck with his original school.

Tailback Kimari Vidal is the program’s career rushing leader and No. 7 nationally.

They all, finally, get another crack at Appalachian State.

Wide receiver Chris Lewis transferred in from Kentucky, but he remembers the viral videos and ESPN replays of last season’s Hail Mary.

“I feel like it left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths around this program,” said Lewis, who has nine touchdown catches. “Me just coming in and being part of the team and being part of the redemption tour, I hope we get that taste out of our mouth.”

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