Junior Colleges

No. 1 East Mississippi dukes it out with No. 2 Arizona Western in Mississippi Bowl

East Mississippi Community College Tyrell Price (8) is tackled by Arizona Western Community College linebacker Nathanael Heaukulani ( 40) during the Mississippi Bowl at A.L. May Memorial Stadium, Perkinston, Sunday, December 3, 2017.
East Mississippi Community College Tyrell Price (8) is tackled by Arizona Western Community College linebacker Nathanael Heaukulani ( 40) during the Mississippi Bowl at A.L. May Memorial Stadium, Perkinston, Sunday, December 3, 2017. JUCO Weekly

With cameras aimed at his East Mississippi Lions, coach Buddy Stephens initially held up his index finger before pausing.

“Four! Four fingers,” Stephens barked at his players.

The celebration came minutes after No. 1 East Mississippi secured a 31-28 victory over No. 2 Arizona Western in Mississippi Bowl X on Sunday. The victory at A.L. May Memorial Stadium tied EMCC (2011, ’13, 1’4) with host Gulf Coast (1948, ’71, ’84, ’07) for four national championships, tops among MACJC members; although MGCCC’s first was recognized by the Williamson Football Rating Bureau, not the current NJCAA governing body. Only Butler (Kansas) and Northeastern Oklahoma A&M have more NJCAA national titles with six.

Does this title mean anything different for Stephens, who also won titles in 2011, ’13 and ’14?

“Yeah, because nobody in Mississippi has ever won four (NJCAA titles). It means a lot after the ’15 and ’16 teams didn’t get to play. We thought they were very good teams and for different reasons they didn’t get to play,” Stephens said, eluding to the fight against Mississippi Delta in 2015 that had an effect on both postseasons for EMCC.

East Mississippi (11-1) started off hot when former LSU quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. connected with Dontario Drummond for a 13-yard touchdown. Ty Williams picked off Arizona Western QB Bryce Perkins on the very next possession and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown to put the Lions ahead 14-0.

“Boy, you could tell that did something to them a little bit. I think that deflated them a little bit,” Stephens said. “They’re a hard nosed tough team, but you could tell that play took a little bit out of them.”

The Matadors responded midway through the second quarter on a 3-yard touchdown connection from backup quarterback Jack Colletto to Dominick Anderson, but EMCC struck fast in the second half to go back ahead 21-7 on an 8-yard score by Tyrell Price.

“I think that changed their philosophy offensively with what they were going to do,” Stephens said.

The two teams traded shots into the fourth quarter with AWC running back Greg Bell and Perkins scoring on 7-yard runs, sandwiched around an 18-yard touchdown pass from Scott to Kirk Merritt.

Clinging to a 28-21 lead, Vancleave’s Taylor Crabtree easily converted a 34-yard field goal with 14:54 remaining that ended up being the difference as it pushed EMCC ahead 31-21.

Not done quite yet, Perkins led the Matadors down the field one last time, converting a crucial fourth down in Lions’ territory to set up a 3-yard touchdown pass to Anderson with 1:54 remaining.

The Matadors came up empty on the ensuing onside kick and the Lions ran out the clock to claim their fifth Mississippi Bowl victory in front of record crowd of 3,148.

“We’ll be back. Just gotta keep getting better,” Matadors coach Tom Minnick said. “We thought we had this one but it didn’t happen.”

Scott was named the EMCC Lions’ offensive MVP and the Mississippi Bowl Player of the Year after throwing for 170 yards and two scores and rushing for 40 more yards.

“When I first got here I saw a group of guys who took me in as family. They made me comfortable and made it easy to make a quick adjustment,” said Scott, who arrived in Scooba from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, only a few weeks before the start of the MACJC season. “Throughout the year we built a bond that showed at the end of this game when we went through a little adversity but kept fighting. I think that’s a testament to our story.”

After recording 10 tackles with one pass breakup and one hurry, Ty’Ree Evans was named EMCC’s defensive MVP.

Perkins passed for 139 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another 104 yards and a score to earn AWC’s offensive MVP. Tyrik Jones made seven tackles with a pass breakup and a QB hurry to earn the Matadors’ defensive MVP.

EMCC dedicated the win to former lineman Tyone Clemons, who was killed in a car crash last month.

Coast connections: In addition to Crabtree’s big field goal, he also made all four extra-point attempts for EMCC. Biloxi’s Grayson Pontius handled kickoff and punting duties for the lions. He averaged 49.5 yards with a long of 59 punting, and two of his six kickoffs were touchbacks. Former Pascagoula and Southern Miss defensive linemen Jauan Collins registered three tackles and a game-high two sacks for EMCC.

Recruiting: The Mississippi Bowl has always been a popular destination for college recruiters as it typically features some of the best talent from the junior college level. New Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, Tulane head coach Willie Fritz, New Mexico’s Bob Davie and former EMCC coach – and current Florida Atlantic assistant – Clint Trickett were among the droves of coaches on the sidelines. In total, 40 coaches from four-year programs were on the sidelines.

Hall of Fame: Former Vancleave, MGCCC and Mississippi State linebacker Chris White was recognized at halftime as the latest Mississippi Bowl Hall of Fame inductee. After leaving MSU, White went on to play for NFL’s Buffalo Bills and later won Super Bowl XLIX with the New England Patriots.

White led Gulf Coast to a 41-7 win over Georgia Military in the inaugural Mississippi Bowl in 2008.

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs