No. 3 EMCC Lions battle to 27-24 semifinal win over Gulf Coast to advance to MACJC state title game

SCOOBA – The third-ranked Lions of East Mississippi Community College earned the right to play for their fifth MACJC state football championship by coming from behind to knock off Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, 27-24, during Saturday's state semifinals played at Sullivan-Windham Field.

Trailing, 24-17, heading into the fourth quarter, EMCC kicked a field goal and ran for a touchdown during the final period, while holding the Bulldogs scoreless, to advance to next Saturday's (Nov. 12) state title game against fourth-ranked Northwest Mississippi Community College.  The reigning state and national champion Rangers claimed a 21-14 road win over MACJC South Division champion East Central Community College in Saturday's other state semifinal game.  By virtue of claiming their sixth straight MACJC North Division championship and eighth in nine years, including a 51-32 homecoming win last month over MACJC North runner-up NWCC, the Lions will host the Rangers in a 2 p.m. Saturday state title tilt on the Scooba campus.

With previous state football championships collected in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2014, head coach Buddy Stephens' current EMCC edition went 50 yards on seven plays to open the game's scoring against Gulf Coast with a 29-yard touchdown pass from De'Andre Johnson to Brooks Shannon at the 12:44 mark. 

The score would stay 7-0 until midway through the second quarter thanks in part to a goal-line defensive stand by the Lions late in the opening period.  Following a 43-yard pass reception from Larry Sisson to Lester Wells and an EMCC horse-collar penalty tacked on, the visitors had the ball first-and-goal from the 5-yard line.  A false-start penalty called on Gulf Coast and a pair of short runs set the stage for Ge'Vonte Jones getting stuffed on a fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line.

The two teams got their respective offenses going during the latter stages of the second quarter by twice trading scores heading into intermission.  Midway through the period, MGCCC evened the score for the first of three times on the day when Sisson hit Quentin Frazier on a wheel route for a 40-yard catch and run down the right sideline at the 7:19 mark.  EMCC immediately answered just over a minute later by moving 61 yards on five plays, capped by Johnson's perfectly timed 39-yard touchdown toss to Calvin Keys Jr. to make it 14-7 with 5:52 remaining in the half.

The Bulldogs responded by marching 90 yards on nine plays on their next possession to knot the score at 14-14  On the heels of Sisson's 38-yard pass completion to Alex Barrow, Frazier scored his second touchdown of the day on a 6-yard run with 1:20 left in the half.  On the ensuing kickoff with the aid of a late-hit penalty, EMCC took advantage of a 39-yard pass play from Johnson to Mario Lanier to set up Taylor Crabtree's 26-yard field goal to make it a 17-14 contest heading into halftime.

Gulf Coast came out of the break with two third-quarter scores to take its first lead of the contest.  The Bulldogs chewed up nearly six minutes on the game clock by efficiently moving 66 yards on 15 plays before settling for a 37-yard field goal by Joshua Rowland to tie the game at 17-17.  The visitors maintained their momentum on the next series when Gulf Coast's Reggio Dean intercepted Johnson's tipped pass attempt.  Two plays later, Jones ran it in from eight yards out to put the Bulldogs on top, 24-17, with 7:31 remaining in the third quarter.

Late in the quarter, Johnson came up big for the home team.  The two-time NJCAA Offensive Player of the Week had back-to-back keepers of 32 and 12 yards to get the Lions inside the red zone to begin the final period.  After an apparent game-tying touchdown catch and run by Raphael Leonard was called back due to a holding penalty, EMCC had to settle for a 32-yard field goal by Crabtree at the 14:25 mark.       

Following the first of three straight three-and-out possessions forced by EMCC's defensive unit during the fourth quarter, Johnson connected with Damion Willis on a clutch 31-yard pass play to the 7-yard line during a critical third-and-three play.  On the next play, back-up quarterback Vijay Miller scored on a keeper up the middle to put the Lions back in front, 27-24, with nine minutes still left to play.

After forcing two more three-and-out possessions down the stretch, including a blocked punt by Michigan transfer Brian Cole II, the Lions' stopper squad shut down Gulf Coast for the remainder of the contest.  On the Bulldogs' first play of their final offensive possession with less than two minutes left in the game, Ezekiel Rose sacked and stripped Sisson.  Texas Tech transfer Dakota Allen recovered the fumble to seal the narrow victory for the three-time national champions.

Statistically for the contest, EMCC's Johnson reached the 300-yard mark for total offense and threw two touchdown passes.  The Florida State transfer was also the Lions' leading rusher on the afternoon with 65 yards on 14 attempts via the ground.