SCOOBA, Miss. In a battle of top-10 MACJC gridiron powers, the third-ranked Lions of East Mississippi Community College could not overcome a 20-point halftime deficit while seeing their seven-year, 36-game home winning streak at Sullivan-Windham Field snapped with Thursday's 56-36 setback to No. 7 Northwest Mississippi Community College.
After trailing, 42-22, at the half, the reigning national and state champions rallied to cut the deficit to six points by the end of the third quarter. The visiting Rangers responded with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to cement EMCC's first home setback since dropping a 47-46 decision to Copiah-Lincoln during the 2012 MACJC state semifinals.
During Thursday's MACJC North Division showdown in which the two teams combined for more than 1,000 yards of total offense, 92 points and 57 first downs between them, the Lions took an early 7-0 lead at the 12:47 mark of the opening quarter on Keon Moore's 1-yard run that capped a nine-play, 71-yard opening drive.
The momentum continued to stay with EMCC following Shavoke' Herrington's third pass interception of the year coming on Northwest's first possession of the game. However, the Lions couldn't take advantage of the turnover when a bad snap from center initiated a three-and-out that ended with Josh Smith's 40-yard field goal attempt sailing left with 11:21 remaining in the quarter.
East Mississippi's defense then stepped up again by stuffing Northwest's running game three straight times at the goal line to thwart an 11-play, 76-yard drive that occupied 5:40 on the game clock. The Lions' resulting field position deep within their own territory led to another three-and-out and gave the Rangers excellent field position at the 39-yard line following the punt. NWCC capitalized by scoring on an 8-yard touchdown toss from quarterback Jack Walker to Cameron Wynn that evened the score with 2:23 left in the period.
The back-and-forth scoring continued during the early portion of the second quarter. In a drive that started at the end of the opening quarter, EMCC answered by marching 67 yards on nine plays to reclaim the lead. Moore ran it in from five yards out for the score, but Smith's point-after-touchdown attempt was blocked.
That lead didn't last long, however, as the Rangers countered just 35 seconds later with a 70-yard catch and run from Walker to Wynn to put the visitors back on top, 14-13.
On their next possession, the Lions had to settle for Smith's 22-yard field goal at the 10:18 mark after their 12-play, 62-yard drive stalled at the goal line. Connor Neville's 28-yard pass completion to Jason Brownlee set up a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, but a negative rushing play and a pair of incomplete passes forced the go-ahead field goal for EMCC.
The lead changed hands one more time as the visitors embarked on a dizzying six-minute stretch where they turned a 16-14 deficit into a 42-16 advantage with four consecutive touchdowns. Following Northwest's five-play, 61-yard scoring drive that was capped by Chris Calvert's 1-yard burst to make it a 21-16 contest with 8:43 left in the half, back-to-back turnovers by EMCC helped ignite the Rangers' scoring surge.
Jayce Rogers' interception and 22-yard return of Neville's pass was immediately followed by Urriah Shephard's 29-yard scoring scamper up the middle on a direct snap from center that increased NWCC's lead to 28-16.
The Lions had seemingly recovered from their initial miscue by putting together a solid drive that was aided by a pass interference penalty called on the visitors. On the subsequent first-down play as EMCC was approaching the red zone, a fumbled handoff exchange was recovered by Northwest. Two plays later, Calvert busted up the middle 57 yards to pay dirt to extend the Rangers' lead to 35-16 with four minutes remaining in the high-scoring first half.
A minute later on their next possession, the Lions were again approaching the red zone following consecutive penalties called on Northwest. EMCC's drive stalled again, however, when three straight incomplete passes led to a turnover on downs that was quickly converted into a 66-yard scoring strike over the middle from Walker to Wynn. Their third touchdown connection of the half and the Rangers' fifth touchdown of the quarter increased the margin to 42-16 with three minutes left until halftime.
The Lions managed to put an end to NWCC's scoring blitz late in the half when freshman quarterback Jamari Jones connected with Brownlee on a 24-yard scoring pass during the half's final minute to make it a 42-22 game and give EMCC some momentum heading into the much-needed break.
With a 20-point lead and ball possession to begin the second half, the Rangers ran the initial six minutes off the game clock with a 13-play drive that ended with Cole Catalano's missed 27-yard field goal try.
Using the missed scoring opportunity as a catalyst, the Lions responded by marching 80 yards on 13 plays in five-plus minutes to open the second-half scoring with Neville's 24-yard touchdown toss to Brownlee in the back right corner of the end zone. Smith's successful PAT trimmed the deficit to 42-29 with 3:37 remaining in the third quarter.
The game's momentum then took a major swing on the ensuing kickoff return when Northwest's Braden Smith was stripped of the football by EMCC's Pervis Frazier around midfield. EMCC proceeded to make it a one-possession game with a subsequent six-play, 46-yard drive that was keyed by a 28-yard, Neville-to-Brownlee hookup and resulted in Zias Perryman's 3-yard scoring run at the 1:42 mark of the third quarter.
On the heels of forcing six turnovers in last week's 24-0 shutout win over East Central, including four interceptions, the Lions amped up the energy level a couple of notches when sophomore safety CJ Terrell picked off Walker's pass on Northwest's next possession. But, EMCC again couldn't take advantage of the opportunity and the game entered the fourth quarter with the Rangers holding onto a 42-36 lead.
The visitors controlled the final period much like the Lions dominated the third quarter. While EMCC only managed to cross midfield one time during the final 15 minutes of play, Northwest scored twice on touchdown runs by Jaquerrious Williams. His first score – a 35-yarder at the 9:37 mark – was made possible by Walker's pivotal 26-yard scramble on a third-and-five play. Walker came up clutch again on NWCC's next possession by connecting with Williams on an 11-yard pass play after being forced out of the pocket on a third-and-nine play at midfield. The result of the nine-play, 50-yard drive that used up nearly five minutes of the game clock was Williams' 1-yard flip over the goal line with just under three minutes remaining in the contest.
Statistically for the EMCC Lions, Neville, a transfer from Washington State, finished the night 31-of-56 through the air for 288 yards, a touchdown and an interception. On the receiving end, Brownlee continued his stellar play by posting career highs with 11 catches for 147 yards and a pair of 24-yard touchdown grabs. The West Point product now has four 100-yard receiving games in six outings on the year with at least one touchdown catch in every contest.
East Mississippi was outgained, 289-129, on the ground by the Rangers. Moore led the way for EMCC with 58 rushing yards and two touchdowns in 11 carries.
Coach Buddy Stephens' EMCC Lions, 4-2 overall and 2-1 in division play, begin the final third of the MACJC's regular-season slate by heading to Goodman to meet the Holmes Bulldogs (2-4, 2-1) on Thursday (Oct. 10). Kickoff at Ras Branch Field is set for 6:30 p.m. on the Holmes campus.