ELLISVILLE – The top-ranked and reigning national champion Lions of East Mississippi Community College parlayed a pair of big second-half scoring plays and three pass interceptions on defense into a hard-fought 19-14 road victory over No. 4 Jones College in the 2018 MACJC State/NJCAA Region 23 football championship game played Saturday afternoon at Bobcat Stadium/Sim Cooley Field.
With their seventh state title in 10 years and third straight under the guidance of 11th-year head coach Buddy Stephens, the EMCC Lions became the first MACJC team to claim at least three consecutive state football championships since Pearl River won four straight from 2003 through 2006. The four-time national champions now await Monday's release of the NJCAA Football Rankings to receive official word on participating in the 2018 NJCAA eTeamSponsor Football National Championship game, which is set for Thursday, Nov. 29 in Pittsburg, Kan.
Saturday's state championship contest between the MACJC's respective North and South Division regular-season champions proved to be a defensive battle from the outset with a scoreless first quarter. The opening 15 minutes of play featured a pair of three-and-out possessions by both teams.
The game's first touchdown and only score of the first half was set up by JaQuez Akin's team-leading fourth pass interception of the season. The Starkville native picked off the first of three interceptions thrown by Stetson Bennett on the afternoon and raced 59 yards to the 25-yard line. Two plays later, TyQuan Ulmer found his former Laurel High School teammate Dontario Drummond for a 28-yard scoring pass down the left sideline to stake EMCC to a 7-0 lead with 7:52 remaining in the second quarter.
The home-standing Bobcats used a 13-play, 65-yard scoring drive coming out of intermission to even the contest. JC's Bennett scored on a 10-yard keeper to the right pylon to make it a 7-7 game with 9:02 left in the third quarter.
Following back-to-back sacks of EMCC's Messiah deWeaver later in the quarter, Jones promptly responded with a 49-yard scoring strike from Bennett to Gabe Douglas to move ahead 14-7 at the 4:14 mark.
The visiting Lions quickly quelled JC's momentum on their ensuing possession when Ulmer and Drummond teamed up again to connect on a 73-yard catch and run less than a minute later. EMCC's missed point-after-touchdown try kept the score at 14-13 in favor of the home team.
Special teams play continued to benefit Jones as a partially blocked punt early in the fourth quarter gave the Bobcats excellent field position at the 37-yard line. However, it was EMCC's vaunted defense on this championship Saturday that helped the Lions reclaim momentum and ultimately secure the victory. On a second-and-10 play from the 21-yard line, JC's Bennett was stripped of the football by LSU transfer Sci Martin Jr. and the fumble was recovered by Joseph Anderson.
Following an 18-yard keeper by EMCC's Ulmer on the ensuing possession, the Lions went back ahead to stay on Deon McIntosh's game-changing, 71-yard rushing touchdown up the middle. The Notre Dame transfer's 17th touchdown of the season with 8:27 left in the game provided the final margin, though the visitors had more work to do defensively to seal the deal.
Over the game's final two minutes, sophomore safety Jacob Anderson picked off two more Bennett aerials to lock down EMCC's 16th consecutive victory dating back to last season. The Lions also improved to 20-2 overall against Top 5 teams and remained unbeaten (11-0) in championship contests (7-0 in state and 4-0 in national championships) during the Stephens era.
As a team, East Mississippi was outgained in total offense (335-276) for the first time since last year's game against Itawamba. The Lions were also on the short side of a 17-11 margin in first downs for the contest.
Individually, McIntosh's dramatic scoring scamper put the sophomore transfer over the 100-yard mark for the sixth time this season after becoming the third EMCC running back during the Stephens era to eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau for the year. Additionally for the Lions, Drummond's two scoring grabs gave the sophomore receiver 21 career touchdown receptions (11 this season) to surpass Lacoltan Bester (19 TDs) for the top spot on EMCC's career list during the Stephens era.