DECATUR – For the second straight game to open the 2012 campaign, standout defensive play keyed top-ranked East Mississippi Community College in a non-division football victory. The visiting Lions forced four first-half turnovers while scoring 38 unanswered points on the way to claiming a convincing 51-7 road triumph over East Central Community College Thursday night at Bailey Stadium.
In the first gridiron meeting between the two long-standing traditional rivals since 2007, it was EMCC's defense that set up the first score of the contest. On East Central's third play from scrimmage, sophomore defensive end Za'Darius Smith sacked Warrior quarterback Colton Kane and the Lions recovered at the 21-yard line. Four plays later, freshman quarterback Quez Johnson barreled in from two yards out at the 11:00 mark to put the visitors on top 7-0 after Morgan Rhodes' successful PAT attempt.
The Lions went up 14-0 on their next possession. Following a 43-yard connection from Johnson to Ole Miss transfer Nick Brassell down the right sideline, Johnson later hit sophomore wide receiver Corey Smith on the opposite side. The former Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community College transfer hauled in the pass, gave a fake to the covering defender and then cut back inside for a stylish 24-yard score with 6:52 remaining in the opening quarter.
EMCC's aggressive defensive play, which forced five Pearl River miscues in last Saturday's 35-15 season-opening victory over the Wildcats, paved the way for two additional scores late in the first half against East Central. Following a missed 26-yard field-goal attempt by EMCC's Rhodes, Lion freshman linebacker Brandon Edwards stripped ECCC's Jamere Knox of the football and the Lions took over just outside the red zone. Sophomore running back Rodriguez Moore got the ball six straight plays and capped the short drive by scampering around the left edge from a yard out with 3:38 left for the Lions' third score of the half.
Smith, EMCC's highly touted pass rusher from Greenville, Ala., came up big moments later by tipping Kane's pass attempt at the line of scrimmage and securing the interception deep in ECCC territory. The visitors capitalized on the Warriors' fourth turnover of the half with Rhodes knocking through a 35-yard field goal with just under a minute left to make the halftime score 24-0.
The reigning NJCAA national champions, who went undefeated in a dozen outings a year ago, tacked on two more touchdowns a little more than a minute apart against East Central to make it 38-0 midway through the third quarter. First, an eight-play EMCC drive was capped by a 16-yard scoring strike over the middle from Johnson to fellow Starkville High School product Billy Shed. Following a three-and-out possession by the Warriors, EMCC's Moore took a hand-off from freshman signal-caller Dontreal Pruitt and scooted 41 yards up the middle virtually untouched into the end zone at the 5:45 mark of the third quarter.
East Mississippi's shutout bid came to an end early in the fourth quarter. After Pruitt's pass attempt was picked off by Deante Lawrence and brought back to the 7-yard line on the final play of the third period, East Central's Martin Johnson put the Warriors on the board at the 12:29 mark with a fourth-and-goal burst up the middle from a yard out.
In securing their first football victory over East Central since 1998 after six straight setbacks to the Warriors, the Lions reached the 50-point mark for the ninth time during the Buddy Stephens era with a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter. EMCC answered the home team's lone score of the contest by mounting a 10-play, 79-yard drive on its next possession. Pruitt, from Laurel High School, capped a 5-of-7 drive through the air by finding Columbus' Deontae Jones on a 23-yard scoring toss at the 9:41 mark. Staying on the ground to run out the clock, the Lions hit pay dirt one final time on Xavier Hogan's 5-yard touchdown run with just 34 seconds remaining.
For the night, EMCC's Johnson was 22-of-35 passing for 253 yards and two throwing touchdowns plus the rushing score. In his collegiate quarterbacking debut, Pruitt completed 8-of-11 passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. Each EMCC quarterback threw an interception on the evening. Nine different players caught passes for the Lions, led by University of South Carolina transfer Martay Mattox, of Athens, Ga., with five receptions for 57 yards and a score. Smith and Shed followed with four grabs apiece for 65 and 55 receiving yards, respectively.
On the ground, Moore, coming off a 112-yard rushing effort in the season opener, finished the evening with 64 rushing yards, including the 41-yard scoring burst, on 11 carries against East Central.
Stretching their overall two-year winning streak to 14 consecutive games as well as notching a 14th straight victory in regular-season competition dating back to 2010, the 2-0 EMCC Lions travel to Summit to meet the Bears of Southwest Mississippi Community College next Thursday (Sept. 13). The 7 p.m. contest will mark the first meeting between the two schools on the gridiron since the 2007 season.