SCOOBA – Returning to the NJCAA's Top 5 for the first time since the preseason football rankings, the fifth-ranked Lions of East Mississippi Community College are set to begin the second half of their division slate on the road by taking on the No. 16 Bulldogs of Holmes Community College Thursday evening in Goodman. Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. at Ras Branch Field.
Previously ranked first nationally in the NJCAA's preseason poll, the 4-1 Lions have steadily climbed back from a No. 14 Week 2 ranking over the past month following their season-opening 27-25 road setback to now-No. 8 Jones County. Since its opener, EMCC has knocked off then-No. 17 Mississippi Gulf Coast (45-7), now-No. 18 Northeast Mississippi (54-10), then-No. 15 Itawamba (44-42) and Mississippi Delta (73-7). Including their current four-game winning streak, the Lions have prevailed in 56 of their last 60 games over the past six years dating back to their first of three national championship seasons.
Most recently, head coach Buddy Stephens' Lions reached the 70-point mark for the sixth time under his guidance with last Thursday's 73-7 home triumph over Mississippi Delta. In the victory, EMCC rushed for six touchdowns for the second time this season. Defensively, the Lions held Delta to less than 100 yards of total offense and made nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
With their current No. 5 national ranking, East Mississippi has now been ranked in the NJCAA Top 20 in 72 consecutive polls, including preseason and final rankings, spanning back to the team's 2011 national championship season. For the past six years, the Lions have also ranked among the NJCAA's top 10 teams in 56 of the last 61 regular-season polls (92%), including 43 weeks rated among the nation's top five squads.
Engineered by recent NJCAA Offensive Player of the Week De'Andre Johnson, EMCC's high-powered offense is ranked fifth nationally with an MACJC-best average of 48.2 points per game. Also a two-time MACJC Offensive Player of the Week recipient this year, Johnson ranks fourth nationally in averaging 292.0 passing yards an outing. The Florida State transfer from Jacksonville also remains the Lions' leading rusher on the year with 322 total yards on the ground. Johnson is averaging 372.5 yards of total offense per contest for the season.
On the ground, EMCC's stable of four running backs - sophomores Isaiah Wright and Jacquez Horsley along with freshmen Brieton Sykes and Tyrell Price – have each rushed for at least 124 yards with nine rushing touchdowns between them on the year.
On the receiving end, the Lions feature six pass-catchers with double-digit receptions on the year, led by sophomores Mario Lanier and Damion Willis with 18 and 17 grabs, respectively. Paced by fellow sophomore Raphael Leonard's team-high four touchdown catches, EMCC has eight different receivers who have caught touchdown passes through the first five games.
Guided by head coach Jeff Koonz, the 16th-ranked Holmes Bulldogs are 4-1 overall and 2-1 in MACJC North Division play after having their winning streak snapped with last week's 27-12 road loss to reigning national champion and current No. 1 Northwest Mississippi. Holmes opened the current campaign with wins over East Central (48-40), Southwest Mississippi (34-20), Mississippi Delta (41-0) and Coahoma (34-12).
The EMCC Lions are unbeaten in eight previous meetings with Holmes during the Stephens era. A year ago in Goodman (Oct. 8, 2015), the two teams combined for nearly 1,100 yards of total offense for the game and scored 55 points between them by halftime before the Lions pulled away for the 44-28 road victory. The three previous matchups all resulted in shutout wins for EMCC over Holmes (49-0 in Scooba in 2014; 55-0 in Goodman in 2013; and 35-0 in Scooba in 2012).
With an 80-12 (.870) career record and 48-3 (.941) division mark in nine seasons at the EMCC helm, Stephens is 24-1 in MACJC North Division road contests during his head coaching career. Since their 24-23 setback at Itawamba to close out the 2012 regular season, the Lions have won 21 consecutive division contests overall, including 10 straight division road wins during the past four seasons.
Thursday's EMCC-Holmes game will be broadcast live by WFCA-FM (107.9), out of French Camp, with Jason Crowder and Charlie Winfield slated to provide the play-by-play and color commentary, respectively, and Glen Beard set to serve as the Lions' sideline reporter. EMCC's 2016 football radio broadcasts will also be carried live by SuperTalk Mississippi (WZKR-FM 103.3) out of Meridian as well as through EMCC's campus radio station, WGTC-FM (92.7), originating from the Golden Triangle campus in Mayhew.
In addition, EMCC's weekly live video-streamed football broadcasts will be available in HD at www.EMCCAthletics.com/live. Alternate audio streams of the radio broadcasts are also available at www.wfca.fm. Fans are also encouraged to follow EMCC Athletics through the college's athletics website, www.EMCCAthletics.com, and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook (@EMCCAthletics) via the school's social media hub at www.EMCCAthletics.com/Social-Media-Hub.