SENATOBIA – Thursday's highly anticipated No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown between state championship foes from the past two years turned into a defensive showcase for the top-ranked and reigning national champion Lions of East Mississippi Community College. With 17 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in holding second-ranked Northwest Mississippi to -20 yards rushing as a team on the night, EMCC stymied the home-standing Rangers, 34-6, in MACJC North Division action played at Bobby Franklin Field.
Included among the Lions' 17 tackles for loss were 10 quarterback sacks for a total of 70 yards lost. Northwest's -20 net rushing yards in 32 attempts were tied for the fourth-fewest rushing yards allowed by a Buddy Stephens-coached EMCC football team and the fewest since Jones College was held to the same amount of rushing yardage during the 2014 season.
With EMCC's vaunted defensive unit forcing Northwest into three consecutive three-and-outs to begin the contest, the Lions got on the scoreboard during their second possession when Notre Dame transfer running back Deon McIntosh followed runs of 10 and 36 yards with a 3-yard touchdown run at the 9:18 mark.
The Rangers' second possession of the evening didn't end as favorably, as the Lions returned a blocked punt for a touchdown for the third consecutive week. This time, Jacob Anderson took a straight line to block Chris Taylor's kick that was recovered by EMCC's Braden Boykin at the goal line and taken into the end zone for a 13-0 lead midway through the opening quarter.
After EMCC's dominating defense held tight on a fourth-and-two play from its own 12-yard line to deny the Rangers on their only trip to the red zone in the contest, the home team did take advantage of the resulting bad field position on the ensuing possession. On the heels of a three-and-out, Northwest's Braden Smith returned Johnny Moss' punt 46 yards for a touchdown. The point-after-touchdown attempt was bobbled and the score remained at 13-6.
At the beginning of the second quarter, the Lions capitalized on a Northwest miscue to account for the only scoring of the period. EMCC's punt hit Northwest's Devin Rockette in the back on the return and was recovered by the Lions' long snapper Brett Burton at the NWCC 24-yard line. Three plays later with 11:26 remaining in the first half, McIntosh scored from nine yards out for his NJCAA-leading 11th rushing touchdown of the season.
The score stayed at 20-6 in favor of the visitors until the halftime break when EMCC's smothering defense thwarted yet another possible scoring opportunity. With just under two minutes remaining in the half, Northwest gained ball possession near midfield after partially blocking a punt and benefitting from a personal foul penalty called on the Lions. On the next play from scrimmage, however, LSU transfer Sci Martin Jr. strip-sacked NWCC quarterback Jacob Free and the loose ball was recovered by EMCC.
East Mississippi's stout stopper squad also set the tone coming out of intermission. Northwest's initial drive of the second half advanced to the EMCC 38-yard line before Everitt Cunningham's third sack of the game halted the drive at midfield. The Lions then took advantage of a short 17-yard punt by NWCC when quarterback Messiah deWeaver connected with standout sophomore wide receiver Dontario Drummond on back-to-back receptions of 35 and 15 yards to extend EMCC's lead to 27-6 midway through the third quarter. Drummond's 15-yard touchdown grab was his seventh of the season and 17th of his EMCC career.
The Rangers had one final opportunity for their offense to put some points on the board early in the final quarter. Free's apparent touchdown pass down the left sideline was dropped by a wide-open Keshunn Abram. Four plays later, the Lions lengthened the margin to 34-6 at the 11:14 mark when sophomore JaQuez Akins raced 79 yards to the end zone for his second pick-six of the season and third pass interception of the year.
Not to be outdone for EMCC's stingy defensive unit, fellow sophomore cornerback Keilos Swinney then matched Akins' team lead with his third pass interception of the year coming on Northwest's subsequent possession.
While outgaining Northwest for the game, 369-98, in total offense yards, the Lions were again powered by McIntosh, who reached the century mark on the ground for the second straight game with 106 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 17 carries. The Pompano Beach, Fla., native has scored in all six games this season, including four outings with multiple touchdowns.
Through the air, EMCC's deWeaver, a transfer from Michigan State, was 20-of-30 passing on the night for 169 yards and a touchdown but also with three interceptions. Once again his top target was Drummond, who had a season-high nine receptions while going over the 100-yard mark (115) for the third time this year.
Winners of 80 of their last 85 games with four national championships over the last eight seasons, Stephens' unbeaten EMCC Lions (6-0, 3-0 MACJC North) return home to play host to the Bulldogs of Holmes Community College (3-3, 1-2) next Saturday (Oct. 13) as part of Homecoming 2018 activities on the Scooba campus. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. at EMCC's Sullivan-Windham Field.