RAYMOND – The preseason top-ranked and reigning two-time national champion Lions of East Mississippi Community College had their 17-game winning streak snapped by dropping a 24-16 road decision to the Hinds Eagles during Thursday night's season-opening MACJC football action played at Gene Murphy Field/Joe Renfroe Stadium.
The game's initial score came on a 22-yard field goal by Hinds kicker Carson Flumm at the 11:38 mark after EMCC transfer quarterback Connor Neville's first pass attempt in nearly three years was picked off by Jonathan Jordan on the second play from scrimmage. Neville, a Beaverton, Oregon native out of Wilsonville High School, did not see game action last season at Washington State University after redshirting the 2017 campaign with the Cougars.
Midway through the opening quarter, the lead changed hands twice within 19 seconds. The visiting Lions got on the scoreboard at the 8:08 mark when Neville and sophomore receiver Jason Brownlee connected on a 28-yard catch-and-run to cap a 10-play, 70-yard scoring drive. EMCC's subsequent point-after-touchdown attempt was blocked following a low, muffed snap from center.
On the ensuing kickoff, Hinds' Jakarius Caston bolted 97 yards to the end zone to put the Eagles back on top, 10-6, with 7:49 remaining to play in the quarter.
In the third scoring change of the quarter, the Lions put together another 10-play scoring drive (67 yards) that was capped by Neville's 18-yard scoring strike to Jontarius Henderson at the 4:18 mark. EMCC then had an opportunity to increase the lead during the final minute of the half, but sophomore running back Keon Moore lost the handle of the football as he was crossing the goal line from 18 yards out. The Eagles recovered the fumble in the end zone for a touchback to keep EMCC's narrow lead at 13-10 heading into intermission.
East Mississippi's defense set up the initial score coming out of the halftime break. Sophomore defensive end Terence Cherry punched the ball out of Hinds quarterback Elijah Walker's throwing hand during a scramble and the fumble was recovered by Deuntra Hyman at the 21-yard line. The Lions later converted the miscue into a 27-yard field by sophomore Josh Smith to increase their lead to 16-10 with 10:43 remaining in the third quarter.
After EMCC couldn't take advantage of Shavoke' Herrington's drive-ending interception of Walker's pass in the end zone, the Eagles had an 11-play, 39-yard scoring drive that featured eight consecutive carries by Don Ragsdale. The sophomore running back ultimately dove over from a yard out on the first play of the final quarter. Flumm's successful PAT put Hinds back in front, 17-16.
With both teams' defenses stepping up during crunch time, EMCC and Hinds essentially traded punts during the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. The Lions then briefly grabbed the momentum later in the quarter by following a 6-yard combo sack by Cherry and Julius Coates with a pass interception by Kentavious McMillian within the red zone. EMCC's resulting drive started well with a 47-yard pass completion into Hinds territory from Neville to sophomore wide receiver Rashad Eades. Five plays later on first down from the 26-yard line, Neville threw his third pass interception of the evening when Hinds' DeMario Nichols stepped in front of a would-be EMCC receiver and sprinted 83 yards for the game-clinching touchdown with 2:33 remaining in the contest.
Despite the quick momentum change, the visitors still had two minutes and change remaining in regulation to possibly overcome the one-possession deficit. EMCC rebounded from a third-and-22 situation with a 17-yard completion from Neville to Hamm McGee. But, the Lions' comeback attempt fell short as Neville's fourth-and-five pass completion to Eades came up one yard shy of the first-down marker. The Eagles then ran out the clock with a pair of kneel-down plays to earn their first win over EMCC since the 2010 season.
Statistically on offense for East Mississippi, Neville finished his collegiate debut with 28-of-44 passing for 275 yards and a pair of touchdowns to go along with his three interceptions. Sophomore Pervis Frazier was his top target on the night with eight receptions for 50 yards. Brownlee and freshman Zach Patterson followed with five catches apiece for 50 and 44 receiving yards, respectively. On the ground, Moore ran for a team-high 61 yards on 15 carries.
Coach Buddy Stephens' EMCC Lions look to rebound from their first loss since midway through the 2017 season when they fell at Northwest Mississippi by playing host to the Wildcats of Pearl River Community College on Thursday (Sept. 5). Kickoff for EMCC's home opener is set for 7 p.m. at Sullivan-Windham Field on the Scooba campus.
EMCC's season-opening defeat at Hinds also marked just the sixth setback in the last 92 games for the Lions dating back to the 2011 season and only the 14th loss overall in 124 decisions spanning back to Stephens' first season (2008) at the East Mississippi football helm.