DECATUR – Josh Smith's game-winning, 19-yard field goal with four seconds remaining enabled top-ranked East Mississippi Community College to escape Bailey Stadium with a hard-earned 24-21 road victory over No. 20 East Central Community College during Thursday's MACJC football action.
Special teams provided the winning margin in the interdivisional contest, as the Lions returned a blocked punt for a touchdown for the second straight week in addition to blocking both a field goal attempt and a critical point-after-touchdown try down the stretch. The Warriors also failed to connect on two other PAT attempts on the night.
With the home team initially dictating the pace of the game with a deliberate offensive attack, the Warriors got on the scoreboard first by capping a methodical 12-play, 74-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown toss from Mario Asagunla to Ray Thomas at the 3:09 mark of the opening quarter. The resulting missed PAT kept the score at 6-0.
The Lions responded in the second quarter by scoring twice within a two-minute span to take their biggest lead of the game. With Michigan State transfer quarterback Messiah deWeaver at the controls, EMCC drove 54 yards on seven plays to get on the board. Following a 17-yard pass completion to Deon McIntosh coming out of the backfield on a third-and-15 play, the Notre Dame transfer running back faked right and then cut back inside from 15 yards out for his NJCAA-leading ninth touchdown run of the season. Smith's successful PAT gave the visitors their first lead with 12:34 left in the opening half of play.
The game's momentum stayed with East Mississippi during ECCC's next possession. After the Lions forced a three and out, Adrian Miller blocked Steven Anderson's punt and Josh Miller scooped and scored from 34 yards out to extend EMCC's advantage to 14-6 with 10:41 remaining in the half.
The resilient Warriors answered right back with consecutive scores of their own, including a momentum-swinging fumble return for a touchdown to reclaim the lead heading into intermission. Following Sam Cox's 25-yard made field goal at the 6:07 mark to trim the deficit to 14-9, East Central came up with a clutch defensive play on EMCC's subsequent possession. On a third-and-goal play from the 9-yard line, deWeaver was sacked from the blind side by ECCC's Payton Rogers and the recovered fumble was promptly returned 80 yards by V.J. Swanier for the score to put the Warriors back in front, 15-14, despite another missed PAT attempt.
After the two teams exchanged three-and-out possessions coming out of the halftime break, EMCC's potent ground game helped regain the lead for the visitors. During a 13-play drive that was extended by a key fourth-down conversion pass play to Rashad Eades, EMCC freshman running back Keon Moore powered his way into the end zone for the remaining 11 yards to put the Lions back in front, 21-15, at the 7:35 mark of the third quarter. Moore and McIntosh combined for 77 of the drive's 91 yards on the ground.
EMCC managed to keep the Warriors off the scoreboard during the third quarter. On the heels of their go-ahead score midway through the period, the Lions made another statement with their defense and special teams play. After East Central gained excellent field position at EMCC's 30-yard line following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on the Lions and a 45-yard return on the ensuing kickoff, the visitors proceeded to hold the Warriors to a 30-yard field goal attempt that was blocked by Everitt Cunningham. EMCC also halted East Central's next drive when sophomore safety Jacob Anderson intercepted his first pass of the season.
The climactic fourth quarter got rolling midway through the period with a game-tying drive by the Warriors. A nine-play, 80-yard scoring march was capped by Asagunla's 28-yard touchdown toss to Torin Hamilton. However, EMCC's game-saving special teams play came through once again when Josh Miller blocked Cox's PAT attempt to keep the contest knotted at 21-all with 3:51 remaining in the battle of top 20 teams.
The Lions' game-winning drive began near midfield when the ensuing kickoff was fielded short and returned to EMCC's 44-yard line. A balanced, efficient 13-play drive set the stage for Smith's last-second heroics. The freshman out of Tupelo High School split the uprights with just four ticks left to preserve East Mississippi's undefeated season and extend the program's winning streak to 10 consecutive games dating back to last year's national championship season.
Statistically for the winners, McIntosh proved to be EMCC's workhorse with a season-high 177 rushing yards, including a 15-yard touchdown run, on 31 carries. The native of Pompano Beach, Fla., has now rushed for at least one touchdown in all five games this season on the way to his NJCAA-leading total of nine scores via the ground.
Through the air for the Lions, deWeaver completed 20-of-30 passes for 152 yards, though the Dayton, Ohio product was sacked five times on the evening. The sophomore pass-catching trio of Dontario Drummond, Kalem Reddix and Adrian Miller each had four receptions for the game.
Winners of 79 of their last 84 games over the last eight seasons, 11th-year head coach Buddy Stephens' 5-0 EMCC Lions resume MACJC North Division play by heading to Senatobia to take on the third-ranked Rangers of Northwest Mississippi Community College on Thursday (Oct. 4). Kickoff at Bobby Franklin Field is set for 6:30 p.m. EMCC and Northwest have battled for the last two MACJC state football championships with the Lions prevailing 67-66 in double-overtime last year in Senatobia and also the previous year by a 38-30 final tally in Scooba.