Sunday night provided a bittersweet ending to the 2016 season for the East Mississippi Community College Lions.
EMCC entered the season No. 1 in the NJCAA’s rankings but never got higher than third after a season-opening loss. The Lions made the most of their Mississippi Bowl berth, despite the annual game missing national title implications for the first time since 2012, knocking off Kilgore College (Texas) 27-17.
“We want the W, of course. If it’s not a national championship year it’s not a successful year (at East Mississippi). There’s nothing we can do about that,” EMCC quarterback De’Andre Johnson said after the game, hosted at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. “We fought day-in and day-out, week-in and week-out.
“We’re proud to be in this bowl and we’re champions now.”
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EMCC (11-1) fell in its opener against Jones County Junior College — in a game played without its sophomores due to suspensions — but reeled off 11 straight wins, punctuated by coach Buddy Stephens’ fourth Mississippi Bowl victory.
Johnson was the catalyst for the Lions’ win, completing 16 of 30 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 84 yards and was named both EMCC’s offensive MVP of the game and the Mississippi Bowl Committee Player of the Year, which goes to the MACJC representative’s MVP.
EMCC jumped out to a 14-0 advantage in the first quarter Sunday on a 36-yard receiver reverse pass from backup quarterback Vijay Miller to Raphael Leonard and a 1-yard run by Jacquez Horsley.
Sparked by backup quarterback Cam Martin, the Rangers (6-5) rallied in the second quarter. Running back Marquis Broussard broke free up the middle for a 14-yard touchdown and Martin connected with Zach Newbell for a 25-yard score with 5:50 remaining in the half.
“I think we lulled a lot in the second half. When Kilgore started going on those drives it just killed our momentum,” Stephens said. “Once we got the ball we would go, but we had to stop and sit for so long. The defense never got off the ball on third downs, so that was killing us.”
After Miller put EMCC back ahead 20-14 on a 2-yard run early in the third, both teams traded punts.
With Kilgore beginning to mount a drive, former Ole Miss verbal commit Jay Johnson came up with what Stephens called the momentum flipper.
Kilgore attempted to set up a screen, allowing EMCC’s linemen in virtually untouched. Chauncey Rivers batted Martin’s pass and Johnson made a diving snag before the ball hit the turf at A.L. May Memorial Stadium. Two plays later Johnson hit Damion Willis down the left side for a 22-yard touchdown.
“They made critical stops at critical times. We were bend but don’t break today, which we hate, but it worked and we won. At the end of the day that’s really all that matters,” Stephens said. “(Johnson’s interception was a) very athletic play. Jay is an athlete. Just to watch him lay out for it was really good. He makes those kinds of plays all the times in practice.
“It was a big play at a big moment and we turned it into points. That helps when you can be on a short field versus those guys.”
Kilgore’s Alvin Kenworthy converted a 28-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter but the Rangers never got within 10 points of the Lions.
“Man, it always feels good to end on a good note; never want to end on a bad note,” said EMCC cornerback Brian Cole II. “Even though the season didn’t end how we wanted it to end, it was still a good family win like always.”
EMCC’s Diamante Pounds was named the Lions’ defensive MVP after recording nine tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss.
Martin, who entered the game after starter Chandler Eiland was injured, completed 25 of 31 passes for 218 yards with a touchdown. He was named Kilgore’s offensive MVP. Matthew McClellan made five tackles, with two sacks and a quarterback hurry, to earn the team’s defensive MVP honor.