The nation”s lone junior college football matchup of top 10 teams this week will take place at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Senatobia when fourth-ranked Northwest Mississippi Community College plays host to eighth-ranked East Mississippi C.C. at Bobby Franklin Field.
WLSM-FM (107.1) will broadcast the game. which is the division opener for both teams.
“This is like Alabama versus Auburn or Mississippi State versus Ole Miss,” EMCC fourth-year coach Buddy Stephens said. “However, instead of playing the last week of the season, it is the third. In the third week of the season, we are stepping right into the fire.
“Man, they are fast. This may be the best Northwest team ever, and that is saying a lot because they have been real good for a long, long time. We have to go up there and really be ready to play great.”
EMCC opened the season with a 34-30 home victory over then-No. 2 Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. EMCC took a step backward last week but still posted a 20-17 road win against Hinds C.C.
“We are pleased to have won the first two games,” Stephens said. “This is way more fun than last year”s 0-3 start. At the same time, the kids have a real good focus and a real good hunger. They know how many things we have to work on to really be a solid football team.”
Northwest opened the year with a 56-55 home victory in overtime against Pearl River C.C. Northwest then ran all over East Central C.C. 42-19 last Thursday in Decatur.
“We are headed in the right direction,” Northwest fourth-year coach Ricky Woods said. “East Mississippi will present the biggest challenge we have faced this year. What we have found from scouting East Mississippi is that their defense can turn downright nasty when they have to have a big play.”
While it remains the third week of the season, the importance of the game is obvious. The top two teams from the North Division advance to postseason play, and Stephens has carried all three of his previous teams to that destination. The game means even more considering Northwest, EMCC, and Northeast remain unbeaten and the other four North Division squads are 0-8.
“This game will really tell us where we are as a team,” Stephens said. “There are several things I really like. Defensively, we are physical and are really flying to the ball. Even though we should have scored more points on offense last week, we did go from three turnovers (against Gulf Coast) to one turnover (against Hinds). Still, we will have to play real close to the perfect game to have a chance Thursday night.”
Through two games, EMCC is second and Northwest third in the state in total offense. The Lions are averaging 503.5 yards per game, while the Rangers are averaging 468 ypg. EMCC is ninth in the state in total defense (345.5), while Northwest is 10th (378).
“The matchup is a good one in several areas,” Woods said. “They may be the first opponent we have faced this year who matches up with us from a speed standpoint. Everyone has talented skill position players in this league. The question is who can go 10, 15 deep and still produce really quality players. You can tell they are playing with a lot of confidence.”
Freshman quarterback Bo Wallace, an Arkansas State University transfer, has really matured as EMCC”s offensive leader. Wallace is 59 of 91 for 699 yards and four touchdowns. He threw his first interception last week.
“Bo is really making good decisions,” Stephens said. “We didn”t know how quickly he would reach this level. However, he has quickly emerged as the go-to leader of our offense. We really trust him to play smart and be a leader.”
From a rushing standpoint, EMCC freshman Rodriguez Moore is third in the state with 122.5 yards per game and 7.2 yards per rush. He ran for 202 yards against Hinds. Sophomore Hamp Glover is fourth in the state with six receptions and 69 receiving yards per game. Sophomore teammate Lacoltan Bester is sixth at 5.5 catches per game and 77.5 yards per game.
“Offensively, we are improving,” Stephens said. “The main thing we need to do is worry about ourselves. It seems like we are stopping ourselves when drives end. We need to do a better job of capitalizing on our opportunities.”
Defensively, sophomore lineman Denico Autry is EMCC”s top tackler and is eighth in the state with 41 stops. Former West Point High School standout Justin Cox is second in the state with his three interceptions, all against Mississippi Gulf Coast. After forcing six turnovers against the Bulldogs, EMCC had zero takeaways against Hinds.
“We will need to force turnovers to continue to win games,” Stephen said. “I like our attitude. I like the fact we are really attacking. That should pay dividends. Every play the kids feel like that is the play that could swing the momentum.”
Northwest sophomore quarterback Ryan Mossakowski is fourth in the state and only 95 yards behind Wallace. The University of Kentucky transfer has attempted 30 fewer and completed 25 fewer passes than Wallace.
Freshman Teshadi Talton is the state”s eighth-best rusher and the Rangers” leading back. He is averaging 82 yards per game. Northwest sophomore receiver Lance Ray leads the state with 30 points, including four receiving touchdowns and an 84-yard kickoff return score.
Winners of 13 straight regular season games, Northwest leads the series, 40-15-1. EMCC has won two of the past three meetings, including a 49-42 triumph in Senatobia in 2009. Northwest won last year”s division opener 25-19.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.