PERKINSTON – East Mississippi Community College's three-year reign as state football champions came to an end with a 31-7 road setback to top-ranked and unbeaten Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College during Saturday night's MACJC semifinals played at A.L. May Memorial Stadium.
Held to without an offensive touchdown for just the second time during Buddy Stephens' 12-year EMCC coaching career, the Lions' only score of the evening came on freshman Zach Patterson's 71-yard punt return for a touchdown at the 9:14 mark of the opening quarter after the visitors held Gulf Coast to a three-and-out in its first possession.
The Bulldogs responded on their next possession with a 12-play, 65-yard drive that was capped by Austin Bolton's 2-yard scoring run to even the score with 3:29 remaining in the quarter.
In an attempt to reclaim the lead on the first play of the second quarter, EMCC seemingly had a miscommunication on Josh Smith's 38-yard field goal try when the snap from center never properly reached the hold position.
The Bulldogs immediately took advantage of the early miscue by the visitors with a 47-yard pass completion from quarterback Chance Lovertich to receiver Jymetre Hester that advanced the ball to the 25-yard line. EMCC's defense stood firm within the red zone to limit MGCCC to a 23-yard field goal by Caden Davis and give the home team a 10-7 lead two minutes into the second quarter.
The Lions' defense came up big again after quarterback Connor Neville's first of two first-half interceptions gave Gulf Coast ball possession near midfield. EMCC recovered from a first-and-goal opportunity for the Bulldogs at the 2-yard line following a pass interference call to force a 19-yard field goal attempt by Davis that was blocked.
The visitors subsequently approached the red zone again on their next possession, but Neville was again picked off by T.J. Ficklin to keep it a 10-7 contest in favor of Gulf Coast heading into halftime.
Following the intermission, the Bulldogs kept the momentum on their side by taking the opening possession of the second half 90 yards on nine plays. Lovertich's 14-yard scoring pass to Marquise Bridges increased Gulf Coast's lead to 17-7 with 11:11 left in the third quarter.
Later in the third quarter, EMCC helped give the Bulldogs excellent field position by being flagged for a facemask penalty while punting away the football. Gulf Coast took advantage by capping a seven-play, 44-yard drive with Shaun Anderson's 2-yard scoring run that was set up by Lovertich's 25-yard pass play to Bridges over the middle. Davis' successful point-after-touchdown kick at the 2:27 mark extended MGCCC's lead to 24-7 heading into the fourth quarter.
With EMCC being outgained, 223-103, in total yards during the second half and 427-249 for the game, the Bulldogs essentially sealed their 10th consecutive victory of the year by efficiently marching the ball 61 yards on 15 plays while taking seven minutes off the game clock. The end result was another 2-yard scoring burst by Bolton to increase the margin to 31-7 with 7:57 remaining in the contest.
The Lions' offensive unit had one last opportunity to produce some points down the stretch with freshman quarterback Jamari Jones under center, but their 13-play, 59-yard drive fizzled out at the 12-yard line with 3:36 left on the game clock.
Offensively, EMCC was limited to 53 net yards rushing and 196 passing yards on the evening by a vaunted Mississippi Gulf Coast defense that entered the postseason ranked first nationally in total defense, second in passing defense, third in scoring defense and sixth in rushing defense.
Individually for the Lions, sophomore wide receiver Jason Brownlee had eight catches for 98 yards against MGCCC to establish a new single-season EMCC standard (Buddy Stephens era) with 1,055 receiving yards this year. The West Point product broke the previous mark of 1,042 receiving yards set by former Oklahoma receiver Lacoltan Bester during the Lions' 2011 national championship season.
While having their 15-game postseason winning streak snapped, including 10 consecutive MACJC playoff victories, dating back to the 2013 postseason, the two-time reigning national champion EMCC Lions fell to 6-4 overall after finishing the regular season with a 4-2 division record as the MACJC North Division's No. 2-seeded team for the state playoffs.