If you want to make Buddy Stephens laugh, ask the East Mississippi coach which Arizona Western players they have to key in on during Sunday’s Mississippi Bowl X.
“They’re loaded, man. They’re loaded across the board. You can’t key in on one guy because, on the defensive line, any one of them can tear you up,” Stephens said Tuesday. “The linebackers are fast. The secondary is tall, long and can run. The offensive line is huge with two backs who can get behind them and either out-run you or pound you. The quarterback is elusive as all get-out. The receivers are fast.
“I think our managers may be able to take their managers, though.”
The Matadors (9-0) enter Sunday’s 2 p.m. showdown at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College ranked No. 2 nationally. Arizona Western averaged 474.7 yards of total offense and 41 points this year while allowing just 149.4 and 17.
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“That’s the prettiest team I’ve seen in five years,” Stephens said.
Quarterback Bryce Perkins has completed 64.9 percent of his passes for 1,172 yards and six touchdowns against seven interceptions. He has also rushed for 249 yards and three scores. AWC’s leading rusher is Greg Bell, who totaled 1,094 yards and 10 touchdowns this year. Six different players caught at least 12 passes, led by Jaron Woodyard’s 30 receptions, 462 yards and six touchdowns.
Defensively, Roy Yancey led the Matadors with 86 tackles. Tyrik Jones and Azur Kamara combined for 19.5 sacks. Bryce Beekman, Jordan Ellis and Ismael Richardson shut down opposing passing attacks, recording 13 interceptions between the trio.
Having already won three national championships, and with the popular Netflix series “Last Chance U,” the Lions (10-1) have sometimes fallen victim to just showing up and playing, expecting the “brand” to do the work for them. Stephens said that hasn’t been the case this year. In fact, he said, the Lions will have to put forth their best effort Sunday if they want to win a fourth title in seven years.
“I think we learned a big lesson the first time we went to Northwest (during the regular season and lost 61-38). People aren’t going to bow to the EM on the side of the helmet. You have to play,” Stephens said.
“There are times when we get into people’s heads and this is one game I can promise you we’re not going to get into their head.”
No. 1 EMCC features several former Coast prep standouts in Pascagoula running back Reginald Hunter, Biloxi kicker Grayson Pontius, Vancleave kicker Taylor Crabtree, George County linebacker Kaleb Gentry and Pascagoula defensive linemen Rasheed Jackson and Jauan Collins.
Hunter rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns in 16 carries this year. Crabtree made 9 of 12 field goals and 65 extra points for 90 points. He also averaged 39.5 yards on 13 punts. Pontius made one field goal, converted all six extra points and averaged 38.8 yards on 16 punts.
Defensively, Jackson recorded eight tackles with one TFL. Collins made six stops.
The leaders of EMCC’s offense have been former LSU quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. and running back Tyrell Price.
Scott has completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 3,311 yards and 27 touchdowns against 10 interceptions while also rushing for 689 yards and six scores.
“I’m excited to see him on this stage,” Stephens said. “He’s kind of like (former EMCC and Ole Miss QB) Randall Mackey used to be — he just wins games.”
Price has rushed for 946 yards and 23 touchdowns on 153 carries.
Former Texas A&M receiver Kirk Merritt leads a deep receiving corps with 50 receptions for 607 yards and three touchdowns. Dontario Drummond and Mike Williams lead the team in touchdown receptions with nine and seven respectively.
Defensively, Ty’Ree Evans has a team-high 91 tackles. Aaron Boatright led EMCC with five sacks. Duke Upshaw had a team-high three interceptions.
“I have a bunch of guys on this team who never quit,” Stephens said. “We were down by 14 against Jones early on and have not played well at times but have continued to play hard.
“If we can go through our league — which is the best league in the country — then I feel like we’ll be able to play with anybody.”
PAST MISSISSIPPI BOWL RESULTS
2008: Gulf Coast 41, Georgia Military College 7
2009: East Mississippi 27, Arizona Western 24
2010: Gulf Coast 62, Grand Rapids 53
2011: Gulf Coast 46, Blinn 17
2012: Garden City 31, Copiah-Lincoln 29
2013: East Mississippi 52, Georgia Military College 32
2014: East Mississippi 34, Iowa Western 17
2015: Northwest Mississippi 66, Rochester 13
2016: East Mississippi 27, Kilgore 17
2017: East Mississippi vs. Arizona Western; 2 p.m. Sunday in Perkinston