Forcing five turnovers in the first half, the top-ranked East Mississippi defense spurred the team on to victory. Holding Iowa Western to just 191 yards of offense – their lowest output in the past three seasons – the Lions gave up just 158 yards passing and 33 rushing.
Sophomore defensive back Quan Latham was a game-changer for East Mississippi, intercepting two passes and forcing a fumble in the first 24 minutes of play. Making more plays in the secondary was fellow sophomore defensive back Allen Sentimore who also forced a fumble and intercepted a pass. Lions sophomore linebacker Justin Lucas led the team in tackles with 14, including 10 solo and 2.5 for a loss.
Offensively, East Mississippi was fueled by a career day from sophomore quarterback Chad Kelly. Throwing for 434 yards – his most as a Lion – Kelly completed 40 of 53 attempts and tied a career-high with five touchdown passes. Lions freshman wide receiver Camion Patrick was his top target, hauling in seven catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Kelly also hooked up with sophomore wide receivers Ja’Marcus Revies, Brandon Acker and sophomore running back Preston Baker for touchdown passes.
Iowa Western put forth a relentless effort but could not overcome their mistakes. Sophomore quarterback Tay Bender completed just 10 of 18 passes and turned the ball over four times with three interceptions and a fumble – all in the first half. Despite a spark provided by freshman quarterback Zach Martin in the third quarter, the Reivers offense was unable to overcome the dominant defense of East Mississippi.
Latham began the onslaught of takeaways on the sixth play of the game, picking off his first interception of the day. East Mississippi methodically moved down the field on a 14-play drive and scored on 4th and goal from the 3-yard line. Kelly found Acker for a touchdown pass, giving the Lions a 7-0 lead. On the first play of Iowa Western’s next drive, sophomore wide receiver Alex Reed caught a pass and streaked across the middle of the field when Sentimore knocked the ball loose and sophomore defensive back Desharick Truly pounced on it for a Lions’ recovery.
With the help of a few stops from their defense, the Reivers began to move the ball at the beginning of the second quarter. With 13:19 left in the first half, Bender found sophomore wide receiver Charlie Miller for a 29-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 7-7. On East Mississippi’s third play of the ensuing drive, the Lions turned the ball over on a fumbled exchange between Kelly and sophomore running back Todd Mays.
Setup at the opponent’s 47-yard line, Iowa Western quickly gave the ball back when Bender was stripped by Latham on a run. Sophomore linebacker Demetrius Cain got the recovery for East Mississippi’s third takeaway of the first half. It only took one play for Kelly to find Patrick down the sideline for a 66-yard touchdown pass, giving the Lions a 14-7 lead.
Following a 58-yard return by sophomore running back Devon Paye on the kickoff, Iowa Western started with the ball on the East Mississippi 27. Three plays later, Bender fell victim to his third turnover on an interception by Latham – his second of the opening half.
Midway through the second quarter, the Lions embarked on a nine-play, 80-yard drive down the Reivers 2-yard line. With their backs against the wall, the Iowa Western defense stuffed Baker for a loss and a turnover on downs.
The Reivers’ momentum was short-lived however, as Bender threw his fourth interception into the arms of Sentimore – who recorded two interceptions in the 2013 title game. Two plays later, Kelly hit Revies in the back corner of the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown pass for a 21-7 East Mississippi lead with 1:55 left before the break.
After being forced into a three-and-out on their opening possession of the second half, East Mississippi gave the Reivers excellent field position with a 25-yard punt. Replacing Bender, Martin drove the Reivers 32 yards down the field before scoring on an 8-yard touchdown run, cutting the deficit to 21-14.
After forcing another three-and-out, Iowa Western cut the deficit to 21-17 with a 30-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Dan Hamilton at the 6:54 mark of the third quarter. With momentum starting to turn in the Reivers favor, East Mississippi responded with a 12-play, 76-yard drive that culminated in a 7-yard touchdown pass from Kelly to Patrick.
Falling behind 27-17, Iowa Western failed to move the ball effectively the rest of the game. The Reivers gained just 18 yards in the final 19 minutes of play. Kelly tacked on his fifth touchdown pass to give the Lions a 34-17 lead, connecting with Baker for a 33-yard score.