SCOOBA – In what likely figured to be a defensive battle to decide the MACJC North Division title, the third-ranked Lions of East Mississippi Community College outlasted No. 5 Northwest Mississippi Thursday night at Sullivan-Windham Field in an unexpected 56-49 slugfest with major national ranking implications also on the line.
Along with extending their current winning streak to 20 consecutive games dating back to last year’s 12-0 NJCAA national championship season, the victory secured the Lions’ fourth regular-season division crown under fifth-year head coach Buddy Stephens’ guidance. In doing so, EMCC claimed the top seed in the MACJC’s North Division and will play host to the to-be-determined second seed from the MACJC’s South Division in the state semifinals of the 2012 Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges’ football playoffs to be contested on Saturday, Nov. 3 in Scooba.
In a contest pitting a pair of Top 5 MACJC powers, the two teams combined for nearly 1,300 yards of total offense, 170 offensive plays, 105 points and 67 first downs. Despite the offensive showcase, it was EMCC’s highly touted defense that ultimately came through with four second-half interceptions to turn the momentum of the game in favor of the home-standing Lions.
The offensive fireworks began with the combatants combining for five first-quarter scores. EMCC quickly got things rolling by moving 86 yards on just three plays in less than a minute, capped by a 25-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Quez Johnson to sophomore transfer receiver Corey Smith.
The Rangers responded by marching 76 yards on eight plays to deadlock the contest at 7-7 on Damian Baker’s 6-yard run with 11:18 still left in the opening quarter. Northwest then took advantage of a Johnson pass interception in the end zone by Keith Reynolds Jr. and promptly drove 80 yards on eight plays to move ahead 14-7 on Baker’s 11-yard scoring run at the 5:18 mark. Following a three-and-out by EMCC, the visitors quieted the home crowd when NWCC quarterback Domonique Harris rolled left and found Darreall Joyner for a 65-yard touchdown bomb to put the Rangers on top 21-7 with 4:05 left in the quarter.
To their credit, the Lions didn’t panic while facing their first double-digit deficit of the year and efficiently went 75 yards on eight plays to cut the margin to 21-14. Johnson and Smith hooked up again on an 8-yard scoring toss to the left corner of the field to close out the first-quarter scoring.
The high-scoring pace continued in the second quarter with four more combined scores. The second session began with EMCC sophomore safety Shaquille Fluker picking off his team-leading fifth interception of the year to put the Lions in business at Northwest’s 31-yard line. Largely responsible for keeping the subsequent drive alive with a key 23-yard scramble on a third-and-15 play, Johnson later bulled in from a yard out at the 12:48 mark to tie the game for the second time.
After the Rangers answered with a 3-yard scoring toss from Harris to fullback Taylor Rotenberry to reclaim the lead at 28-21 midway through the quarter, EMCC’s Johnson finished off an 8-play, 69-yard drive with another 1-yard burst into the end zone at the 5:04 mark. The game’s third deadlock was followed by a timely three-and-out possession forced by the Lions’ defensive unit. Despite being pinned back at their own 3-yard line with 2:43 left in the first half, the Lions proceeded to march 97 yards on 10 plays to gain back the momentum heading into intermission. Johnson capped the final drive of the half with a 10-yard scoring pass to Ole Miss transfer Nick Brassell in the right corner of the end zone.
Following a much-needed break after the two teams combined for 63 first-half points, a pair of costly turnovers by the home team enabled Northwest to temporarily flip the game. On EMCC’s opening possession of the half, running back Rodriguez Moore was stripped of the ball following a reception near midfield. Two plays later, Harris this time rolled right and hit Joyner on the move for a 35-yard touchdown to knot the score at 35-35 with 10:34 left in the quarter. The turnover bug bit again on the Lions’ next possession, as NWCC’s Aaron Thompson stepped in front of Johnson’s pass attempt and raced 79 yards to pay dirt to take back the lead at 42-35 with 8:05 remaining in the quarter.
That was the final advantage the visitors from Senatobia would enjoy, however, as the Lions’ stopper unit rose to the occasion during crunch time. The momentum began to switch back over to the home side following a tipped 42-yard field-goal attempt by Northwest placekicker Chase Carpenter at the 3:20 mark. Set up by Jason Yarbor’s first of two pass interceptions in a 10-minute span and aided by a nifty 25-yard run by Moore, EMCC closed out the third quarter with Johnson finding the end zone on a 14-yard scramble to tie the contest (42-42) for the fifth and final time.
On their next offensive possession, the Lions would consume 4:34 off the game clock during a 13-play, 84-yard drive that culminated with sophomore running back Xavier Hogan carrying four straight times for a total of 31 yards. With fresh legs in relief of Moore at the tailback slot, Hogan capped the sequence with a 2-yard bolt across the goal line coming at the 9:07 mark. The 49-42 advantage marked a lead the home team would not relinquish the rest of the way.
EMCC’s sophomore-laden defensive secondary continued to prove to be the difference-makers in the contest by picking off Northwest’s Harris during three straight possessions down the stretch. Yarbor’s second pick of the evening was immediately cashed in for a score following his 52-yard interception return to the 23-yard line. On the next play, Johnson connected with Martay Mattox to extend EMCC’s lead to 56-42 with 6:53 left in the contest.
Sophomore safety Justin Cox helped seal the deal for the unbeaten Lions with his fourth and fifth pass interceptions of the year coming on successive Northwest possessions late in the contest. Tied with Fluker for the team lead with five picks on the year, the former West Point High School standout now has 10 career collegiate interceptions.
The Rangers, who have already earned the MACJC North Division’s No. 2 seed in the upcoming state playoffs, tacked on the game’s final score with a 4-yard scoring pass from Harris to Cedrick Jackson with just 31.4 ticks left on the game clock. The Lions claimed the ensuing onside kick to secure their 20th consecutive win overall and 20th straight regular-season victory spanning back to the 2010 campaign.
Johnson, a former Starkville High School product, finished the night with 534 yards of total offense and accounted for seven touchdowns. In addition to throwing for a career-high 422 yards and four touchdowns on 33-of-46 passing, Johnson also rushed for a career-best 112 yards and three more scores on 20 carries.
In preparation for making their fifth straight appearance in the MACJC State Playoffs under Stephens’ leadership, the 8-0 EMCC Lions will close out the regular season next Saturday (Oct. 27) by traveling to Fulton to meet the Indians of Itawamba Community College. Homecoming kickoff is slated for 4 p.m. at Eaton Field on the ICC campus.