SCOOBA – With possible postseason implications on the line, the third-ranked Lions of East Mississippi Community College return to MACJC North Division play and close out a two-game football home stand by playing host to No. 7 Northwest Mississippi Community College Thursday evening on the Scooba campus. Kickoff for the much-anticipated gridiron battle of top-10 teams is set for 7 p.m. at EMCC's Sullivan-Windham Field.
Up a pair of notches to No. 3 in this week's NJCAA Football Rankings, the 4-1 EMCC Lions went undefeated during the month of September after dropping a 24-16 season-opening decision at Hinds Community College back on Aug. 29. Following home wins over Pearl River (49-15) and Itawamba (48-3) along with a 41-23 road victory over Mississippi Delta, the reigning national and state champions blanked East Central, 24-0, a week ago for their fourth straight win of the year. The non-division whitewash marked EMCC's 23rd shutout of the Buddy Stephens coaching era and extended the Lions' current seven-year home winning streak to 36 consecutive games dating back to the start of the 2013 season.
With both No. 3 EMCC and seventh-ranked Northwest entering this week's divisional showdown sporting 4-1 overall marks on the year, Thursday's matchup marks the ninth time in the last 11 EMCC-NWCC meetings dating back to 2011 that both teams will be ranked in the top 10 nationally when going to head-to-head. Along with the Lions (2013-14 & '16-18) and Rangers (2015) having combined to claim the last six state football titles and six of the last eight national championships between them (EMCC in 2011, '13-14 & '17-18 and NWCC in 2015), the two programs have also dominated division play by combining to win the last 11 MACJC North Division regular-season football titles with EMCC winning nine times and Northwest prevailing in 2010 and 2017.
Statistically as a team heading into this week's action, East Mississippi is ranked 12th nationally in scoring offense with an average of 35.6 points per game. Riding the right arm of transfer quarterback Connor Neville (Beaverton, OR), the Lions stand second among the NJCAA team statistical leaders in passing offense (345.6 yds/gm) and fourth in total offense (504.2 yds/gm). Defensively as a team after picking off four passes for the first time since the 2014 season during last week's shutout victory over East Central, the Lions are tied for 13th nationally with a state-high eight interceptions on the year. Freshman cornerback Kel Williams (Starkville) had three of those picks a week ago - all in the fourth quarter – to become the first EMCC player since Justin Cox (2011 vs. Mississippi Gulf Coast) with three pass interceptions in one game.
Individually for the Lions, Neville is ranked second nationally averaging 288.2 passing yards per outing. The Washington State transfer also rates fourth among NJCAA leaders in pass completion percentage (64.4%) and sixth with a state-best 12 touchdown passes through the first five games. The top target among EMCC's six double-digit receivers on the year is sophomore wide receiver Jason Brownlee (West Point), who ranks fourth nationally in receptions (33), receiving yards per game (105.8 yds/gm) and touchdown receptions (6). Fellow sophomores Pervis Frazier (Louisville) and Austin Morphis (Pontotoc) follow with 25 and 23 catches, respectively. The Lions' running game is powered by sophomore Keon Moore (Harrison Central HS) and freshman Zias Perryman (Laurel) with 276 and 264 rushing yards, respectively, for the season.
Defensively coming off their first shutout victory of the year by forcing East Central into six turnovers, the Lions are ranked 10th nationally in scoring defense by allowing an average of only 13.0 points per game. On the season, EMCC defenders have totaled 43 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including 18 quarterback sacks (T-13th in NJCAA) divided among 10 different players. Sophomore linebacker Fred Hervey (Charleston) continues to lead EMCC's stopper squad with 37 total tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss with four quarterback sacks.
Guided by fourth-year head coach Benjy Parker, the seventh-ranked Rangers of Northwest Mississippi fell from the No. 3 spot nationally after dropping last week's 47-42 road decision to the Holmes Bulldogs. Prior to that, NWCC had opened the 2019 campaign with a 26-13 road win over East Central followed by home triumphs over Southwest Mississippi (29-10), Mississippi Delta (33-3) and Copiah-Lincoln (19-15).
Sporting an overall head coaching record of 114-14 (.891) and MACJC North Division mark of 64-4 (.941) in his 12th season with the EMCC Lions, Buddy Stephens owns an 11-2 career mark versus Northwest Mississippi (5-1 in Scooba & 6-1 in Senatobia). A year ago (Oct. 4) in Senatobia during a No. 1 (EMCC) vs. No. 2 (NWCC) rematch between state championship game foes from the previous two years, the Lions dominated defensively for four quarters en route to posting a 34-6 road win over the Rangers. With 17 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including 10 quarterback sacks, on the night, EMCC limited Northwest to -20 net rushing yards as a team on 32 attempts last season. During the previous two years, the Lions knocked off the Rangers to claim back-to-back state championships with a 38-30 home win in 2016 followed by the memorable 67-66 double-overtime victory the next year in Senatobia.
Thursday's EMCC-Northwest divisional showdown will be broadcast live by WFCA-FM (107.9), out of French Camp, with Jason Crowder and Jonathan Holmes slated to provide the play-by-play and color commentary, respectively, while Glen Beard is set to handle sideline reporting duties. The Lions' 2019 football radio broadcasts are also carried live by SuperTalk Mississippi (WZKR-FM 103.3), out of Meridian, as well as through EMCC's campus radio station, WGTC-FM (92.7), originating from the Golden Triangle campus in Mayhew. In addition, EMCC's weekly live video-streamed football broadcasts are available in HD at www.EMCCAthletics.com/live. Alternate audio streams of the radio broadcasts are also available at www.wfca.fm.