|East Mississippi's 20-game win streak halted with 24-23 road setback on Itawamba's Homecoming|
FULTON – Tyler Jackson’s 43-yard field goal with 16 seconds remaining lifted Itawamba Community College to a 24-23 upset victory over third-ranked East Mississippi Community College Saturday evening at Eaton Field. The road setback on ICC’s Homecoming snapped EMCC’s 20-game winning streak that had dated back to last year’s NJCAA national championship season.
The game-winning field goal by ICC’s freshman kicker capped a fourth quarter that saw four lead changes. Tied at 14-14 entering the final period, the visiting Lions took their first lead of the contest on fellow freshman kicker Morgan Rhodes’ 31-yard field goal with 8:34 remaining in the contest.
On the Indians’ subsequent possession, a third-down pass play from quarterback Griff Loftis to receiver Sanford Seay was aided by a pair of dead ball penalties by EMCC. The next play from scrimmage resulted in Tobias Lofton exploding through the left side of the line for a 21-yard touchdown that put Itawamba back on top 21-17 with 6:49 left in the game.
To their credit, the Lions fought back to put together an 11-play, 61-yard scoring drive mainly on the ground. With EMCC quarterback Quez Johnson and sophomore running back Rodriguez Moore combining for 47 rushing yards during the drive, Johnson capped things off by pounding the ball in from a yard out on a second-effort play. However, the ensuing successful point-after-touchdown by Rhodes came off the scoreboard after the Lions were whistled for a holding penalty. The infraction would come back to haunt the Lions, as the second attempt missed left to keep the score at 23-21 precariously in favor of the visitors.
The Indians’ eventual game-winning drive got off to a slow start after they fumbled the subsequent kickoff out of bounds and were pushed back to the 11-yard line because of a holding penalty. With 2:27 remaining in regulation, Loftis calmly directed the home team on a 15-play drive that set up the late-game dramatics. ICC’s freshman quarterback from Mooreville was 7-of-12 with 59 yards through the air to enable the Indians to get to the 26-yard line. Following a timeout on a fourth-and-one, Jackson, who had earlier missed on a 27-yard attempt in the opening period, connected on his career-long three-pointer to put Itawamba back on top 24-23.
EMCC did have a last chance remaining when Ole Miss transfer Nick Brassell ran back the final kickoff to ICC’s 43-yard line. Following an incomplete pass and a sack of Johnson by Fred Ward at midfield on the game’s final play, however, Itawamba’s Homecoming celebration ensued to cap the Indians’ 6-3 campaign.
It was the short-handed Indians who took early control of the regular-season finale for both teams despite dressing out only 39 members of their season-opening, 55-man roster. Benefitting from three first-half interceptions thrown by EMCC’s Johnson, ICC turned the game’s opening miscue into seven points on Loftis’ 3-yard touchdown toss to Rashad Pargo at the 11:44 mark of the first quarter. With the visitors failing to generate much consistent offense through the air, Itawamba moved ahead 14-0 late in the second quarter on a 40-yard scoring strike over the middle from Loftis to Ronald Carswell.
The Lions did receive a much-needed energy boost when freshman LeDarious Clark ran back the ensuing kickoff 49 yards to ICC’s 41-yard line. Five plays later, Moore picked up his 10th rushing touchdown of the year on a 5-yard score to cut Itawamba’s lead in half with 3:06 remaining until intermission. The visitors looked to be in business again on the subsequent kickoff when the Indians fumbled the squib kick and turned it over at their own 29-yard line. EMCC’s apparent momentum was short-lived, as Theo Rich nabbed Johnson’s pass near the line of scrimmage on the next play to preserve ICC’s 14-7 halftime lead.
East Mississippi seemingly regained that momentum coming out of the break by holding ICC on its opening possession of the second half and engineering a game-tying drive that efficiently covered 95 yards on 12 plays. Equally dividing the pass along with the run, the four-minute drive was capped by Moore snatching a swing pass from Johnson one-handed on a fourth-and-eight play and bolting 16 yards down the right sideline. The lone score of the third quarter knotted the contest at 14-14, setting up the game’s fourth-quarter dramatics.
Along with halting the Lions’ 20-game overall winning streak, the one-point setback ended EMCC’s 20-game win string in regular-season contests that had spanned back to the 2010 campaign. The loss also marked East Mississippi’s first defeat in 15 MACJC North Division road outings since Buddy Stephens took over the Lions’ head coaching duties in 2008.
Statistically for EMCC in the team’s regular-season finale, Johnson accounted for 377 yards of total offense and two touchdowns against Itawamba. The reigning NJCAA Offensive Player of the Week was 25-of-44 through the air for 238 passing yards and a touchdown along with the trio of first-half interceptions. The former Starkville High School product also registered career-high numbers on the ground for the second straight week by rushing for 139 yards and one score on 32 carries.
The 8-1 EMCC Lions, MACJC North Division regular-season champions for the fourth time in five years under Stephens’ guidance, will now look to regroup from their first loss since a 48-21 postseason setback at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in the 2010 MACJC state semifinals by playing host to South No. 2 seed and 17th-ranked Co-Lin on Saturday in this year’s state semifinals. Kickoff at EMCC’s Sullivan-Windham Field is set for 2 p.m. on the Scooba campus. No. 9 Mississippi Gulf Coast, champions of the MACJC’s South Division, will entertain North No. 2 seed and 11th-ranked Northwest Mississippi in Saturday’s other semifinal-round playoff matchup. The two winners will meet the following Saturday (Nov. 10) for the 2012 MACJC/NJCAA Region 23 Championship at a site to be determined.
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