PITTSBURG, Kan. – Defense does indeed win championships. The nation's leader in scoring defense rose to the occasion once again, as the top-ranked Lions of East Mississippi Community College claimed their fifth national title in eight years with a hard-fought 10-9 victory over No. 2 Garden City (Kan.) Community College during Thursday's NJCAA eTeamSponsor Football National Championship. The much-anticipated gridiron matchup between the national junior college champions of the past two years was played at Carnie Smith Stadium on the campus of Pittsburg State University in front of a live national television viewing audience (CBS Sports Network) for the first time in NJCAA history.
Alongside previous national championships collected in 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2017, EMCC's five NJCAA titles under the guidance of 11th-year head coach Buddy Stephens are closing in on the all-time mark of six national football crowns currently shared by Butler (Kan.) and Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. The Lions also join Butler as the only two NJCAA member schools to have won back-to-back national football championships on two separate occasions. Butler did so in 1998-99 and then again in 2007-08.
"This one is sweet because it's back-to-back," Stephens said. "It's also sweet because our sophomores have lost only one game in two years (23-1) and won two national championships."
The reigning national champions got on the scoreboard first when freshman Josh Smith connected on a 36-yard field goal five minutes into the contest to cap a 10-play, 61-yard drive for the Lions.
After holding the Broncbusters to three-and-outs on their first three possessions, the Lions closed out the first quarter with Joseph Anderson's interception of a David Moore pass. EMCC's All-Region 23 defensive end Everitt Cunningham then made his presence felt early in the second quarter by forcing NJCAA rushing leader Charles West to fumble deep in GCCC territory before scooping up the loose ball and scoring from 11 yards out to give the Lions a 10-0 lead with 12:46 remaining in the first half.
That defensive gem by the eventual eTeamSponsor Most Valuable Player for the game marked the final scoring of the half, though EMCC did miss out on another scoring opportunity during its next possession. Smith's 34-yard field goal attempt with seven minutes left sailed right at the end of a 12-play, 51-yard drive that used up nearly four minutes on the game clock.
After dodging a bullet coming out of intermission when Garden City's apparent 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was called back because of holding, EMCC's defense stepped up again on the Broncbusters' second drive of the half. Following West's 45-yard run to create a first-and-goal opportunity from the 9-yard line, Cunningham came up clutch again by dropping GCCC's other 1,300-yard rusher Dedrick Mills for a 3-yard loss on a third-and-goal play from the 4-yard line. The Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference champions had to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Ben Raybon to make it a 10-3 contest with 4:06 left in the third quarter.
While the Lions' offense continued to sputter during a scoreless second half that produced only two first downs and just 27 yards of total offense following the halftime break, Garden City opened the final period with an opportunity to knot the score. However, after Mills' 1-yard burst into the end zone capped an 11-play, 33-yard drive that chewed up nearly six minutes of the game clock and was extended by a roughing-the-passer penalty by EMCC, the Broncbusters opted to instead try for the go-ahead, two-point conversion attempt. The Lions were ready for GCCC's unconventional formation at the line of scrimmage consisting of offensive linemen spread out wide left and thus proceeded to snuff out the two-point try to keep the score at 10-9 midway through the final period.
"I think the turning point in the ballgame was the two-point conversion," Stephens noted. "We had worked on that several times. We actually didn't have the right personnel in for that particular play, but our guys recognized it, lined up to it and defended it well."
From that point on, neither team really threatened offensively for the remainder of the contest. After EMCC stopped the Broncbusters around midfield on a fourth-and-four play on their following possession, it was only fitting that Garden City's final two possessions of the game ended with takeaways by the Lions. Jacob Anderson's pass interception was followed by Cunningham's game-ending fumble recovery – his second of the game – to give EMCC four takeaways on the evening.
Having entered the national title game ranked first nationally as a team in allowing the opposition an average of only 11.4 points per game this season, the Lions bettered that mark by surrendering only 30 total points during their three postseason games. The nine points scored by Garden City, preceded by Jones' 14 points and Copiah-Lincoln's seven points during the MACJC state playoffs, mark the three lowest point totals allowed by EMCC during the 24 postseason games played under Stephens' guidance.
Individually for the Lions in the game, All-Region 23 wide receiver Dontario Drummond became EMCC's leader in career receptions (95) and receiving yards (1,466) during the Stephens era with six catches for 39 yards against Garden City. The Laurel High School product also tops the Lions' statistical leaderboard since 2008 with 21 career touchdown grabs.
Also for EMCC during the national championship game, All-Region 23 running back and Notre Dame transfer Deon McIntosh ran for 69 yards on 18 carries to finish the season with 1,150 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns via the ground. Michigan State transfer quarterback Messiah deWeaver, also an all-region performer for the Lions, connected on 17-of-29 passes for 96 yards against the Broncbusters. Defensively for the champions, sophomore Eriq Kitchen led all tacklers in the game with 13 total stops, including 2.5 tackles for loss.