Top-ranked EMCC Lions fall 31-24 in OT at No. 4 Co-Lin as 25-game winning streak comes to a halt

WESSON – Top-ranked East Mississippi Community College had its attempted bid at tying an all-time NJCAA standard for most consecutive wins denied by No. 4 Copiah-Lincoln Community College during Thursday's MACJC football action.  The host Wolfpack snapped the Lions' 25-game winning streak by claiming a 31-24 overtime triumph over the two-time reigning national champions at Stone Stadium on the Co-Lin campus.

EMCC's win string, which had spanned the entire 2013 and 2014 campaigns through last week's 69-20 season-opening home win over Southwest Mississippi, fell just shy of Blinn College's all-time junior college mark of 26 consecutive victories achieved between the 1995 and 1997 seasons.  Now 45-3 collectively over the last four-plus seasons, eighth-year head coach Buddy Stephens' EMCC Lions also previously put together a 20-game winning streak during the 2011 and 2012 seasons before dropping back-to-back, one-point decisions to Itawamba and Co-Lin three years ago.

Thursday's rematch of last year's MACJC State Championship Game won by East Mississippi, 54-15, in Wesson, began with Co-Lin taking advantage of a fumble by EMCC starting quarterback John Franklin III on the game's second play from scrimmage.  Though the visitors held the Wolfpack out of the end zone despite Co-Lin having a first-and-goal opportunity inside the 10-yard line, Co-Lin kicker Greg Nickles booted through a 20-yard field goal to give the home team an early 3-0 lead three minutes into the contest.

Following a pair of three-and-out possessions by EMCC and a missed 35-yard field goal attempt by Nickles at the 5:26 mark, the Lions capped a six-play, 80-yard drive with sophomore quarterback Wyatt Roberts finding freshman running back Isaiah Wright down the middle of the field for a 65-yard scoring strike to make it 7-3 with 4:21 left in the opening quarter.

Despite a missed 28-yard field goal try by Co-Lin's Nickels to open the second period, the Wolfpack moved ahead with a pair of touchdown passes along with two late-half defensive stands to take a 17-7 lead into intermission.  Midway through the quarter, Co-Lin went 55 yards on six plays to reclaim the lead, 10-7, on freshman quarterback Garrett Kruzcek's 22-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Barnes at the 10:12 mark.  The Wolfpack then forced another EMCC three-and-out and later capitalized on a 15-yard penalty called on the visitors to move ahead, 17-7, when Kruzcek hit Alexander Hollins with a 40-yard aerial score with 7:05 remaining in the half.

Perhaps the most critical stretch in deciding the game's final outcome came during the last seven minutes of the first half.  Trailing by 10, the Lions failed to generate any points on successive goal-line opportunities heading into the break.  With five minutes left, Roberts' fourth-and-goal pass from the 2-yard line sailed out of the back of the end zone.  After then forcing a three-and-out possession and getting the ball right back just outside the red zone with 3:25 remaining in the half, EMCC was again stopped by Co-Lin as Roberts' fourth-and-one pass attempt from the 7-yard line with just over a minute left was smartly defended.

Coming out of halftime, the game's momentum immediately turned in favor of the visiting team when Lakedric Lee's fumble on the half's opening play from scrimmage was recovered by EMCC's Keita Wortham.  On the next play, Roberts connected with sophomore DJ Law out of the backfield for an 18-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 17-14 just 25 seconds into the half.

Later in the third quarter, the Lions had to settle for Grayson Pontius' successful 26-yard field goal at the 1:24 mark to knot the score at 17-all heading into the final period of regulation.

The fourth quarter began with both teams coming up empty after reaching red-zone territory via successive long drives.  East Mississippi's 12-play, 63-yard drive ended when Pontius' 34-yard field goal attempt was deflected at the line of scrimmage with 6:57 left in the quarter.  Sparked by a subsequent EMCC defensive stand that was highlighted by freshman De'Arius Christmas' quarterback sack, the Lions reclaimed the lead for the first time since late in the opening period when Roberts found a wide-open Dario Robinson downfield for a 56-yard catch and run to the end zone to make it a 24-17 contest with only 2:42 remaining in the quarter.

The Wolfpack responded in front of an enthusiastic home crowd by marching 61 yards on eight plays to tie the contest at 24-all on Lee's 5-yard scoring run with just 23 seconds left in regulation.

Co-Lin took advantage of a pass interference penalty on a third-and-four play during its opening possession of the extra session, as Kruzcek connected with Lee on a 5-yard touchdown toss.  The Lions then took the field at the 25-yard line in an attempt to prolong the game.  A Roberts-to-Law pass completion offset an offside penalty called on the visitors, but EMCC's sophomore quarterback was then picked off by Co-Lin's Jaquarius Landrews to end the contest and give the Lions their first defeat since dropping a last-second 47-46 decision to the Wolfpack during the 2012 MACJC State Semifinals (Nov. 3) played on the Scooba campus.

Roberts, a Louisville High School product, finished the night 20-of-37 through the air for 337 passing yards, three touchdowns and the one pick.  His top targets were Robinson and Law with five and four receptions, respectively.

On the ground for the Lions, Law hit the century mark for the second straight game with 100 rushing yards on 16 carries against Co-Lin.

The 1-1 EMCC Lions now turn their collective attention to the MACJC North Division slate by playing host to the Coahoma Tigers next Thursday (Sept. 10) in a 7 p.m. contest at Sullivan-Windham Field on the Scooba campus.