SCOOBA – The third-ranked Lions of East Mississippi Community College claimed their fifth MACJC State/NJCAA Region 23 football championship with a 38-30 victory over No. 4 and reigning state and national champion Northwest Mississippi Community College Saturday afternoon at Sullivan-Windham Field.
Joining previous state/region titles claimed during the 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2014 seasons, head coach Buddy Stephens' 10-1 EMCC Lions have earned an invitation to compete against an at-large team in next month's Mississippi Bowl. This year's Mississippi Bowl will be played on Sunday, Dec. 4, at May Memorial Stadium on the campus of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in Perkinston.
In a rematch of last month's 51-32 EMCC Homecoming victory over Northwest, the Lions battled back from a 27-24 halftime deficit by scoring on their first two possessions of the second half and holding the visitors scoreless in the third quarter. After forcing a 30-yard NWCC field goal late in the fourth quarter, EMCC ran out the majority of the remaining three minutes of the contest to account for eight-point final outcome.
Featuring the two most recent national champions among the junior college football ranks, Saturday's title tilt produced 34 combined first-quarter points. The Lions drew first blood by efficiently moving 63 yards on six plays to begin the contest. Sophomore running back Jacquez Horsley rushed four times for 36 yards during the drive, capped by his 8-yard scamper into the end zone at the 13:24 mark.
The Rangers promptly answered by advancing 62 yards on eight plays to knot the score on Clay Holgorsen's 10-yard touchdown toss to Romeel Cochran with 9:40 remaining in the opening period. Northwest maintained its momentum on EMCC's next possession, as Wesley Bush intercepted De'Andre Johnson's pass and returned it to midfield. Four plays later, aided by a 34-yard run by Cole Rotenberry, Marquisian Chapman scored from nine yards out on a reverse. However, Drake McCarter's point-after-touchdown attempt was blocked by EMCC's Brian Cole II to keep the score at 13-7 in favor of Northwest with 6:57 left.
The game's high-scoring pace continued with the Lions taking advantage of a pass interception to reach the end zone twice in less than a minute to reclaim the advantage. Johnson, sensing defensive pressure from the outside, tucked the ball and sprinted 46 yards straight down the middle of the field to reclaim the lead for the Lions at the 5:00 mark. On Northwest's next possession, Lion sophomore linebacker Ryan Lee picked off Holgorsen's pass and rumbled 30 yards for the score to extend the EMCC lead to 21-13 while concluding the first-quarter scoring.
The second quarter favored the visitors, as the Rangers put the ball in the end zone twice. They capped an 11-play, 66-yard drive with Quarderman Sloan's 2-yard scoring run at the 14:12 mark. Later in the quarter, Northwest answered Taylor Crabtree's 24-yard field goal with a 17-yard scoring pass from Cam Bowman to Cochran to put the reigning state champs back in front, 27-24, heading into intermission.
Following a defensive stand to open the second half, the Lions again scored back-to-back touchdowns aided by another pass interception. EMCC first benefitted from a pair of pass interference calls to march 60 yards on seven plays to jump back on top for good. Back-up quarterback Vijay Miller scored on a 2-yard keeper to put the Lions ahead, 31-27, with 9:35 remaining in the third quarter. On the Rangers' subsequent possession, EMCC sophomore safety Alexander Lipscomb intercepted Bowman to keep the momentum on the side of the home team. On the heels of Johnson's 45-yard pass completion to Isaiah Wright to the 3-yard line, the two-time NJCAA Offensive Player of the Week then found Raphael Leonard on an inside slant pattern for another score at the 6:59 mark to make it, 38-27, entering the fourth quarter.
Midway through the final period and down by two scores, Northwest began a drive that would consume nearly five minutes on the game clock. After the Rangers' 12-play, 77-yard drive stalled at the 12-yard line, McCarter's 30-yard field goal brought the visitors to within eight points with 3:31 left in the game.
Keeping the ball on the ground, the Lions were able to eat up most of the remaining clock time with a pair of key first-down runs by Johnson, who finished with 122 yards and a touchdown on the ground and 111 yards plus another score through the air. Northwest did get the ball back with only 12 seconds left and 87 yards from the end zone but couldn't get to midfield before the game clock expired.
EMCC's Horsley, a product of Starkville High School, finished with 77 rushing yards on 14 carries. Lion sophomores Brooks Shannon and Mario Lanier led the way with four catches apiece for the winners.