SCOOBA — The Lions are back.
The East Mississippi Community College football team slipped from the nation’s subconscious a year ago. A season-ending brawl, a postseason ban, and a loss in this season’s opener left the Lions a forgotten team.
On Saturday afternoon at Sullivan-Windham Field, EMCC sent a loud statement that it is back and ready to make the most of this season’s postseason chances. Before an overflow Homecoming crowd on a picture-perfect afternoon, No. 4 EMCC rolled past No. 1 Northwest Mississippi C.C. 51-32 in a Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) North Division showdown.
With the win, EMCC extended its winning streak to 23-straight division games. The Lions nailed down an eighth-straight North Division championship. With that title, EMCC will play host to a first-round MACJC playoff game Nov. 5.
“We had to send a statement,” EMCC sophomore defensive back T.J. Jallow said. “We had to remind Northwest that we run the North (Division). Northwest had been doing a lot of talking, on the field, on social media. We had to send a message. This is our division, and we came back out here to claim it today.”
EMCC has won eight of the last nine meetings against Northwest Mississippi. The Lions moved to 30-1 in the six-year history of the new Sullivan-Windham Field. EMCC has made a habit of playing big games under ninth-year coach Buddy Stephens. They have also made a habit of winning those games.
“This is what our kids do,” Stephens said. “They come here to win championships. This is the first championship. It can lead to bigger ones. We have some defensive issues, and that has been going on for a couple of weeks now. On offense, we aren’t doing exactly what we normally do. However, it is still effective.
“When all is said and done, it was a big-time atmosphere and a big-time game. Our kids delivered. That is what we do around here.”
EMCC quarterback De’Andre Johnson threw for 334 yards and five touchdowns. Nine receivers had catches, while each touchdown went to a different player.
As a team, EMCC ran 96 plays for 614 yards.
“This really felt like a Division I game,” said Johnson, who came to EMCC after a brief stint at Florida State. “It was a Saturday afternoon and we had a great crowd. You had to get excited. We knew this was going to be the biggest game of the season. I am really proud at how we showed up and played. We competed our tails off.”
The EMCC defense has been evolving. The Lions allowed 42 points to Itawamba C.C. and 49 points to Holmes C.C.
Saturday was vastly different. The Lions scored the first 17 points and stayed in control. Northwest Mississippi scored the last of its four touchdowns in the final minute.
“We did a great job of getting defensive pressure on their quarterback,” EMCC sophomore linebacker Diamante Pounds said. “The last couple of weeks, the other team has gotten something going and we have had a hard time stopping it. I think we had a little more focus today. This was a big game. We wanted home field in the playoffs, so that meant we had to win here.
“The defense will continue to grow up and continue to get better.”
Jallow was part of a dominant defense last season. He has seen signs the group can reach that level.
“We are disappointed we gave up 32 points, but we are now getting into the big games,” Jallow said. “You could tell Northwest was rattled. There was a point where they weren’t really sure of what they were doing. The whole thing was getting pressure on the quarterback. We got in the backfield a lot and change the whole game around.”
There were plenty of standouts on defense. Sophomore linebacker Ryan Lee led the way with seven tackles, a pass breakup, and a quarterback hurry. Tim Bonner had two of the team’s six sacks and a fumble recovery — the only takeaway for the unit.
Chauncey Rivers, Dontavius Powell, and Rodney Jackson also came up big. Jackson delivered the big blow when he knocked starting quarterback Clay Holgorsen out of the game early in the third quarter.
Behind the play of relief quarterback Cam Bowman, Northwest pulled within 31-25 after a 3-yard touchdown to Dee White with 3 minutes, 55 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Rangers (6-1, 4-1) followed the score up with a three-and-out.
The EMCC defense then followed with a critical stop. Pounds had a strip of Bowman and Bonner had the recovery.
EMCC took advantage of the short field, as former Starkville High standout Jacquez Horsley scored on a 3-yard run to put the game away.
With the North Division title secured, EMCC will look to finish a fourth-straight undefeated run through division play Thursday by beating winless Coahoma C.C. (0-7, 0-4). The Lions still have plenty to play for because each game now matters in the national championship race.
“We just have to keep improving to get where we want to go,” Jallow said. “Everybody is excited we have won six games in a row, but we got to keep going. We can’t be satisfied because there is a still a lot of work left to be done.”
For EMCC, the chance to complete that work is very satisfying.
“People forgot about us after last year, and they had every right to,” Powell said. “But now we are back. It’s a good feeling to be back.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.