PERKINSTON – The top-ranked Lions of East Mississippi Community College captured their fourth NJCAA national football championship in seven years with a 31-28 victory over No. 2 Arizona Western College during Sunday afternoon's NJCAA Football Championship Game/Mississippi Bowl X played at A.L. May Memorial Stadium on the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College campus.
Joining previous national titles earned in 2011, 2013 and 2014, EMCC becomes the first Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) member school to reach four national football championships as recognized by the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA). Dating back to the school's first national championship in 2011, Stephens' Lions have compiled an impressive seven-year overall record of 74-5 for a 93.7 winning percentage.
Sunday's rematch of the 2011 NJCAA Football Championship Game - won by EMCC, 55-47, in Yuma, Ariz. - began with the Lions controlling the opening quarter of play and getting out to an early 14-0 lead. The six-time MACJC state champions scored first when Lindsey Scott Jr. connected with Dontario Drummond on a 13-yard scoring strike at the 3:28 mark to cap a nine-play, 63-yard drive.
The early momentum swung EMCC's way on AWC's next possession when Ty Williams picked off Bryce Perkins' tipped pass near midfield and ran 49 yards for the pick six to make it 14-0 with 1:54 left in the first quarter.
Following a three-and-out by EMCC midway through the second quarter, the Matadors embarked on a 12-play, 59-yard drive that was capped by Jack Colletto's 3-yard touchdown toss to tight end Dominick Anderson at the 5:27 mark. The five-minute drive marked the only scoring of the second quarter by either team and cut the deficit in half heading into intermission.
The high-scoring third quarter featured both teams trading touchdowns twice during an entertaining eight-minute span of offensive fireworks. After EMCC's Tyrell Price increased his NJCAA-leading rushing touchdown total to 24 by barreling in from eight yards out at the 11:46 mark, Arizona Western's Greg Bell followed suit by scoring on a 7-yard run to the left corner of the end zone to bring it back to a one-score game at 21-14 with 6:12 remaining in the quarter.
The Lions responded with a timely special teams play when Brandon Rodgers took the ensuing kickoff 54 yards to the 39-yard line. A 21-yard completion from Scott to Drummond then set up Kirk Merritt's 18-yard sprint to the right corner of the opposite end zone to stretch EMCC's lead back out to 14 points. The Matadors showed some resilience by answering with an efficient four-play, 70-yard drive that resulted in Perkins scoring from seven yards out at the 3:44 mark to make it a 28-21 contest heading into the final quarter.
In perhaps the key moment of the championship contest that ultimately decided the game's three-point final margin, Scott hooked up with Rodgers on a clutch fourth-and-16 play from the 33-yard line to extend the drive. Four plays later on the first snap of the fourth quarter, EMCC's Taylor Crabtree pushed the margin back out to a two-score game with his successful 34-yard field goal.
As both teams exhibited outstanding special teams play and key defensive efforts down the stretch, the Matadors made one final push toward the end of the contest that brought them as close as they would get on the scoreboard. Another 3-yard scoring toss to Anderson from Perkins with just under two minutes remaining capped a 12-play, 76-yard drive that trimmed the deficit to just three points but used up nearly five minutes on the game clock.
After EMCC's Adrian Miller snared the ensuing onside kick attempt, the Lions managed to burn off the remaining 1:51 to seal their fourth NJCAA national championship since 2011 and their first since winning back-to-back national titles in 2013 and 2014.
Statistically, Arizona Western outgained EMCC, 381-246, in total offense and nearly doubled the Lions' time of possession for the game. The victors produced their 31 points despite having the ball just over 20 total minutes during the contest.
Individually, Scott was named EMCC's Offensive MVP for the game after completing 15-of-28 passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns while running for another 40 yards on 14 attempts. The LSU transfer from Zachary, La., also earned Mississippi Bowl Committee Player of the Year honors for the Lions.
Sophomore linebacker Ty'Ree Evans, a product of Wayne County High School, grabbed EMCC's Defensive MVP game honors after being credited with 10 total tackles, one pass breakup and a quarterback hurry.
For Arizona Western, Perkins was named his team's Offensive MVP after throwing for 139 yards and a touchdown on 18-of-32 passing and picking up another 104 yards and a score on the ground in 14 carries. Defensive end Tyrik Jones picked up AWC's Defensive MVP award with seven total stops, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry.