SCOOBA – The second-ranked Lions of East Mississippi Community College scored the game's final 26 points in overcoming a 14-point, second-half deficit to earn a 47-34 season-opening victory over Jones County Junior College in MACJC inter-divisional play Thursday evening at Sullivan-Windham Field.
With the comeback victory, 10th-year EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens, coaching in his 100th career game with the Lions, surpassed Hall of Fame coach Bob "Bull" Sullivan to become the school's all-time leader in career wins. Stephens' career coaching mark of 88-12 and .880 winning percentage also moved him ahead of former Butler (Kan.) Community College head coach Troy Morrell (154-22 for .875 from 2000-14) as the NJCAA's all-time leader in career winning percentage among football coaches with a minimum of 100 career games coached.
East Mississippi's come-from-behind victory ironically began following a JCJC score that put the visitors on top, 34-21, with 5:37 remaining in the third quarter. On the heels of a 9-yard scoring pass from Chris Weaver to Diondre Champaigne, EMCC sophomore defensive back Denzel Bonner subsequently blocked Mike Froeze's point-after-touchdown attempt and ran it all the way back for a successful defensive PAT that accounted for two points for the Lions.
Later in the quarter, the Lions took advantage of Froeze's missed 37-yard field goal attempt by striking quickly. On third-and-10, transfer quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. from LSU hit fellow Louisiana native Kirk Merritt over the middle for an 80-yard catch and run to the end zone. Taylor Crabtree's successful PAT cut the deficit to 34-30 with two minutes remaining in the third period. Merritt, who would add a 1-yard scoring run midway through the final quarter, also had an 82-yard punt return for an apparent touchdown nullified earlier in the half due to an offside penalty.
After surrendering three third-quarter touchdowns to Jones County, the Lions' defensive unit rose to the occasion to keep the visitors off the scoreboard during the final period. With the quarter winding down, freshman safety Joseph Anderson picked off Weaver's pass and returned it 37 yards to just past midfield. Following three straight first-down gains to begin the fourth quarter, sophomore running back Tyrell Price reclaimed the lead (37-34) for EMCC with a 7-yard touchdown burst.
Following back-to-back three-and-outs forced by EMCC's defense and Merritt's 1-yard scoring plunge to make it a 10-point contest, the Lions essentially secured their 12th consecutive victory dating back to last year's 27-25 setback at Jones County with Crabtree's 24-yard field goal with 5:07 remaining in the contest.
The season-opening rematch got off to a slow start offensively until consecutive big plays put both teams on the board late in the first quarter. The Lions drew first blood when Scott connected with freshman receiver Dontario Drummond on a 49-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline. JCJC quickly answered, however, when Weaver found Harry Ballard on a 78-yard scoring pass just two plays later to knot the score at 7-all.
The two teams also traded touchdowns in the second quarter following an initial scoreless eight minutes to open the period. EMCC reclaimed the advantage by culminating a 10-play, 77-yard drive with Scott's 17-yard touchdown toss to sophomore receiver Dorrean McLaurin at the 6:57 mark. The Bobcats responded once again shortly after getting stopped at the goal line following a 15-play, 72-yard drive that consumed more than five minutes on the game clock. After taking over at their own 3-yard line, the Lions gave the ball right back when Scott was intercepted by Tyrek Moody, who returned the pick to the 9-yard line. On the next play from scrimmage, Detric Hawthorn hit Jeriko Morris through the air to tie the contest at 14-all heading into intermission.
Jones County bolted out of the gates following the break and established early control of the second half with two quick scores. First, on a fourth-and-one play, sophomore running back Scott Phillips rumbled 46 yards up the middle two minutes into the half to put the visitors back on top, 21-14. After forcing a three-and-out, the Bobcats doubled-up the reigning state champions less than two minutes later on Hawthorn's 51-yard scoring pass to Ballard with 11:39 left in the game.
Benefitting from a short punt by JCJC's Taylor Wallace, the Lions used a pair of sizable gains via the passing game to briefly stall the visitors' momentum. A 30-yard, Scott-to-Merritt hookup was followed two plays later by a 46-yard scoring strike to Georgia Southern transfer Mike Williams to cut the deficit to 28-21 with 8:27 remaining in the third quarter.
The visitors answered an EMCC score for the third time on the evening with their seven-play, 64-yard touchdown drive, but the resulting PAT attempt brought back the other way by the Lions helped spark their game-ending 26-0 run over the game's final 20 minutes.
Statistically for the winners, Scott threw for 429 yards and four touchdowns (2 INTs) on 25-of-42 passing in his collegiate debut, while also running for 54 yards on 14 carries. Price, out of Lafayette High School, was EMCC's leading rusher with 64 yards and a score on 14 attempts. Merritt, from Destrehan, La., via Oregon and Texas A&M, caught a team-high seven passes for 180 yards, including the 80-yard touchdown reception.
Winners of 64 of their last 68 games, including a 34-1 composite home record, dating back to the 2011 season, the EMCC Lions stay at home to play host to the Mississippi Gulf Coast Bulldogs on Thursday (Sept. 7). Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Sullivan-Windham Field on the Scooba campus.