College football fans were treated to a bounty of memorable bowl games Saturday, including a stirring comeback by Wake Forest over Memphis in the Jared Birmingham Bowl and a record-setting 70-14 thumping by Army over Houston in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl.
The most fascinating matchup of future NFL prospects Saturday, however, took place Saturday evening at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. - the same field in which hundreds of scouts will be covering the Senior Bowl roughly a month ago.
That is where Troy and its gifted senior cornerback Blace Brown took on the Buffalo Bulls, which featured one of the more exciting QB-WR duos in the entire country in junior quarterback Tyree Jackson and his playmaking wideout Anthony Johnson, a two-time First Team All-MAC pass-catcher.
Losing six fumbles certainly hampered the Bulls, but with Brown and the Trojans’ secondary limiting Johnson – a Senior Bowl invitee – to five mostly harmless catches for 67 yards, Troy outlasted the Bulls, winning 42-32.
To be clear, Brown did not shadow Johnson all over the field and he lost a battle or two when they did match up, including getting flagged for holding in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
Though he did grab cloth to deserve the penalty, Brown otherwise played well in this contest, showing the same smooth turning motion, acceleration and awareness which has helped him develop a reputation as one of the nation’s best senior cornerbacks, checking in fourth on NFLDraftScout.com’s 2019 CB rankings.
Though he started his career at Troy as a walk-on, the 6-0, 184 pound is already well on the radar of scouts, entering Saturday’s game among the nation’s active career leaders with 12 career interceptions.
He nearly intercepted his 13th Saturday night, timing his leap and showing excellent hand-eye coordination to nearly pluck a one-handed interception while guarding Johnson in the second half. A few drives later he sealed Troy’s win with a blocked field goal inside the final two minutes, screaming off the left edge to cleanly bat away a 30 yard attempt by Adam Mitcheson to preserve the Trojans’ 10 point lead.
Of course, creating turnovers in big games is nothing new for Brown, who recorded a key pick late in Troy’s stunning upset over LSU last year.
While Brown lived up to his hype Saturday night, Jackson and Johnson only flashed the potential.
At an imposing 6-7, 235 pounds, Jackson certainly looks the part of a future early NFL draft pick and, at times, he showed this kind of skill, extending plays with his intriguing athleticism and making a few wow throws. He completed 20 of 35 passes for 274 yards and a touchdown along with an interception and a lost fumble.
While Jackson’s upside is undeniable, so too is his lack of polish. His interception came on a misguided throw into coverage in the direction of Johnson and with his favorite target bottled up by Brace and friends, Jackson struggled to consistently deliver accurate passes to secondary receivers.
In all fairness, it was hard for him to develop much timing with his receivers as the Bulls fumbled the ball a half dozen times in this contest (losing three) and lost an onside kick in the third quarter.
Buffalo entered the game with the much higher regarded offense but Troy won the time of possession battle (33:23 to 26:37) and had seven possessions compared to just four for the Bulls in the second half. Of the four drives, only two resulted in even a single first down for the Bulls.
The 6-1, 210 pound Johnson can only hope that his second trip to Mobile will go better. Not only did he not produce the statistics or victory that he would have liked in his final game, Johnson appeared to injure his forearm late in the game, visibly grimacing and shaking his hand after jamming into the concrete wall near the end zone after attempting to track down an off-target toss from Jackson.