ELLISVILLE — East Mississippi Community College football coach Buddy Stephens still has a sense of calm when he watches his team in a nip-and-tuck affair.
“If you keep playing long enough, just have that belief the defense is going to come through,” Stephens said. “They have done it all year. Sooner or later, they are going to make that gigantic game-changing play. It can be any of them. You just know it is going to happen.”
No. 1 EMCC beat No. 4 Jones College 19-14 Saturday afternoon to win the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) State championship.
EMCC (11-0) will play in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championship game Nov. 29 in Pittsburg, Kansas.
“Playing for the national championship has been the goal from day one,” EMCC sophomore defensive back JaQuez Akins said. “We were playing for a championship today, so we had to give our best performance.”
EMCC has held five opponents to seven or fewer points. The Lions didn’t quite do that.
Jones (10-1) also held a 335-276 advantage in total yards. It was the first time this season EMCC was outgained.
The biggest number though belonged to the Lions’ defense. Jones had six turnovers, while EMCC had none. It was the most takeaways by EMCC’s defense this season.
“All year we have been a turnover-forcing machine,” EMCC sophomore defensive lineman Everitt Cunningham said. “We take pride in crushing the other team’s spirit. The whole defense has this pride thing going. We just want to dominate.”
While the EMCC offense struggled to put together consistent drives, the Lions’ defense held the insurance policy. A 59-yard interception return by Akins set up EMCC’s first touchdown. TyQuan Ulmer hit Dontario Drummond on a 28-yard touchdown to give EMCC a 7-0 lead at halftime.
“In the second half, they got a couple of plays on us,” EMCC freshman linebacker Fred Hervey said. “We just had to make sure we won the battle in the end.”
Jones drove 65 yards on 13 plays to tie the game on the first possession of the second half. The Lions had the stop on fourth down at the EMCC 20-yard line, but a facemask call extended the drive.
The Bobcats later broke a 49-yard run for a 14-7 lead.
After that, three of the final five possessions ended in turnovers, including two interceptions by Jacob Anderson.
Akins’ first-half interception seemed to change the momentum. Stephens preferred Anderson’s theft.
“That was my favorite play,” Stephens said. “It ended the game.”
In addition to the interceptions, Untareo Johnson, EJ Woods, and Sci Martin Jr. forced fumbles. Joseph Anderson, Johnson, and Shavoke Herrington had recoveries. Two of the fumble recoveries took place with Jones in the red zone.
“I can live with six turnovers,” EMCC defensive coordinator Cliff Collins said. “The shutout would have been nice. We also allowed too many yards. At the end of the day, I will take six turnovers. We can win with that.”
Eriq Kitchen also had two-and-a-half of his team’s four sacks.
“The defense just played their hearts out,” Stephens said. “Jones is outstanding. This was a great football game. This is everything we thought it would be.”
Akins knew his squad was in for a special day after his interception.
“Jones primarily likes to run the ball,” Akins said. “It was important that we made them throw the ball and that we punished them when they did. Pretty proud of our guys and how we played in the biggest game of the season.”
EMCC had that rare game where it was challenged to the end. Mistakes were made, but Stephens kept that confidence.
“We have put together one of the really elite defenses,” Stephens said. “I am glad they are on my side.”
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Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.