PERKINSTON -- The Lions of East Mississippi Community College remained undefeated in postseason bowl play under head coach Buddy Stephens with a 27-17 win over No. 13 Kilgore (TX) College in Sunday afternoon's Mississippi Bowl played at A.L. May Memorial Stadium on the campus of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
With EMCC's bowl victory, coupled with Garden City's 25-22 triumph over Arizona Western during Saturday's NJCAA National Championship Game/El Toro Bowl, the Lions finished the 2016 campaign ranked second nationally. AWC fell a notch to third in the final NJCAA Top 20 poll followed by Trinity Valley and Mesa at fourth and fifth, respectively.
The win over the runner-up from the Southwest Junior College Football Conference marked EMCC's 11th consecutive victory on the season and kept the Lions perfect in postseason bowl competition (5-0) under their ninth-year head coach. Undefeated in four Mississippi Bowl appearances with previous wins in 2009 as well as in 2013 and 2014 for back-to-back national championships, East Mississippi also claimed the 2011 national title in Yuma, Arizona with an El Toro Bowl victory.
In reaching double-digit wins in a season for the fifth time in nine years under Stephens' guidance, the 11-1 Lions tallied a pair of third-quarter touchdowns against Kilgore to regain the momentum after two second-quarter scores by the 6-5 Rangers knotted the game at 14-14 heading into intermission.
The opening quarter belonged to the five-time MACJC state champions from Scooba. Following a missed 53-yard field goal attempt by Alvin Kenworthy on Kilgore's first possession, EMCC's second offensive series of the contest was prolonged due to a roughing-the-punter penalty. On the next play of the extended seven-play, 64-yard drive, back-up quarterback Vijay Miller connected with Raphael Leonard from 36 yards out on a double-reverse trick play that resulted in a 7-0 Lion lead at the 9:31 mark.
Later in the period on the heels of the Lions forcing a third of four straight three-and-outs by Kilgore to open the game, a 35-yard run by EMCC freshman running back Tyrell Price followed by a pass interference call on the Rangers moved the ball into the red zone. Six plays later with less than a minute left in the period, sophomore Jacquez Horsley punched it in from a yard out to give the Lions a 14-0 lead entering the second quarter.
The game's momentum turned in favor of the Rangers during their 16-play, 74-yard drive that consumed nearly seven minutes on the game clock early in the second quarter. As the drive seemed to stall around midfield on a sack, EMCC was penalized for a late hit that knocked starting quarterback Chandler Eiland out of the game. With back-up Cam Martin at the controls, Kilgore capped the extended drive on Marquis Broussard's 14-yard touchdown run with 6:55 remaining in the half.
On the ensuing kickoff, Kilgore recovered the fumbled short pop-up kick at the 34-yard line. Following short runs by Broussard that moved the ball to the red zone, Martin hit Zach Newbell in the end zone with a 25-yard touchdown toss to tie up the contest at 14-all with 5:50 left.
The Rangers had a chance to take the halftime advantage on their next possession, but Kenworthy's 31-yard field goal try sailed left at the halftime buzzer.
Following the break, East Mississippi quickly reclaimed the momentum by forcing another three-and-out to open the second half. EMCC's Region 23 MVP De'Andre Johnson provided the second-half spark by covering 59 yards on a keeper down the right sideline on the Lions' first offensive play of the half. The former Florida State transfer then connected with Damion Willis for 19 yards to the 2-yard line on a third-and-10 play. Miller promptly cruised into the end zone untouched for the remaining two yards, but kicker Taylor Crabtree missed the point-after-touchdown try to keep it a 20-14 contest in favor of EMCC with 12:25 left in the third quarter.
Later in the period, the Lions' defense stepped up big again to put the ball back in Johnson's hot hand. Linebacker Jay Johnson intercepted Martin's tipped pass attempt to give EMCC the ball at the 25-yard line. A short pass to Calvin Keys Jr. was followed by Johnson's perfectly placed 22-yard scoring pass to Willis in the left back corner of the end zone at the 4:52 mark. Crabtree's successful PAT increased the margin to 27-14 heading into the fourth quarter.
Kilgore used up the final five minutes of the third quarter and the first five minutes of the final period by advancing 74 yards on 19 plays before settling for Kenworthy's 28-yard field goal at the 9:37 mark.
Neither team could produce any substantial offense in the defense-dominated fourth quarter. After the two teams traded three-and-out possessions late in the period, Kilgore managed to only get to the 32-yard line before turning the ball over on downs within the final minute of the contest.
For the winners, Johnson earned Mississippi Bowl Offensive MVP honors by throwing for 163 yards and a touchdown on 16-of-30 passing while rushing for a team-high 84 yards on 13 attempts. The Jacksonville, Florida native was also named the Mississippi Bowl Committee Player of the Year for the season in recognition of being the top player on this year's state championship team.
Linebacker Diamante Pounds, out of Saltillo High School, was tabbed EMCC's Defensive MVP for the game after being credited with nine tackles, including two sacks and another tackle behind the line of scrimmage for a total of 11 yards lost.
Martin was named Kilgore's Offensive MVP by finishing 25-of-31 through the air for 218 passing yards and a touchdown. Defensive lineman Matthew McClellan earned the Defensive MVP for the Rangers with five tackles, including two sacks among his 2.5 tackles for loss.
With 87 victories and only a dozen defeats, including three national championships, five state titles, eight division crowns and five bowl game victories under Stephens' leadership since 2008, EMCC this season surpassed Butler (KS) Community College as the NJCAA's winningest football program over the last nine years.