SENATOBIA -- For much of Saturday's MACJC Championship Game, Gulf Coast's offensive play resembled the playing conditions at No. 1 Northwest's soaked Bobby Franklin Field - sloppy.
The No. 6 Bulldogs lost four fumbles in the mud and were sacked another six times in the 34-24 loss.
"You can't turn the ball over. That's the name of the game," Gulf Coast coach Chad Huff said. "We haven't turned the ball over that bad all year."
Gulf Coast (8-3 overall) trailed 14-10 after two quarters and while the Bulldogs overcame a fumble at midfield on the opening kickoff of the second half, the Rangers' defense struck on the next drive. Facing second-and-2 from their own 32, Rangers defensive tackle Corey Brown blew through the offensive line, stripped quarterback A.J. Erdely and rumbled for a 22-yard score.
With 45 seconds remaining in the third frame, the Rangers' scored again. This time, Erdely was flushed from the pocket and fumbled while running to his right.
Former Harrison Central standout and Oklahoma signee Tito Windham scooped the loose ball out of the mud and raced 5 yards for a touchdown to put Northwest up 27-10.
"I was coming down to get the ball carrier anyway, so when he got sacked and the ball was stripped it was just there," said Windham, who finished with five tackles and a pass breakup.
Gulf Coast's offensive line play has improved greatly since the two teams faced off Sept. 3, but the Bulldogs didn't show it Saturday. After being sacked eight times in the first game, Erdely was constantly on the run in the rematch.
It wasn't until a pair of touchdown passes to Gulfport's Jonathan Nance late in the third and fourth quarters that the Bulldogs' passing attack began to click - but by then the game was out of reach.
The former Admiral scored on a 62-yard touchdown as time expired in the third quarter to bring Gulf Coast back within 10 points at 27-17 and with 2:49 left he caught a 4-yard touchdown to close out the night's scoring.
"We continued to dig and battle. There were some things we knew we could do all along, we just waited a little too late to get it going," Huff said. "In games like this guys have to step up and make plays to get the momentum turned. They kept it there for a little bit."
With the win, Northwest clinched a berth in the Dec. 6 Mississippi Bowl at Biloxi High School. Because the Rangers entered Saturday's bowl game No. 1 in the NJCAA poll, the Mississippi Bowl is expected to be the host site for the national championship game, but it won't be official until the poll is released Tuesday.
The victory punctuates a long climb from the MACJC's depths for the Rangers, who were 1-8 in 2013 before Jack Wright took over the program.
"It means a lot. Northwest hasn't had this in a long time," Windham said. "We had to work, work, work. We knew what we wanted and where we needed to go. In order to do that we had to be on the front page - and that's where we're at."
Erdely completed 19 of 29 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns.
"He's a fighter. He's a winner. We came up a little short today but that doesn't make him any less of a man or an individual," Huff said of his quarterback, who was covered in mud as the final siren sounded. "I'd go to war with him any day. He put a lot into it. To come up a little short is tough."
The Bulldogs rushed for just 66 yards at the team, with GeVonte Jones' 47 yards on 12 carries leading the way. Ishmel Morrow led Gulf Coast with six receptions for 84 yards. Nance finished with 73 yards and two touchdowns on three catches. Northwest quarterback Gardner Minshew completed 48 percent of his passes for 204 yards with a 13-yard touchdown to Marquisian to open the game and an 18-yard touchdown pass to Justin Crawford early in the fourth that put the Rangers ahead 34-17. Crawford, who entered the game second in the country in rushing, totaled 71 yards with 50 coming on his second-quarter touchdown that broke a 7-7 tie.
Erdely scored Gulf Coast's first touchdown on a 6-yard run. Kicker Joshua Rowland also converted a 39-yard field goal.