Featuring two of the nation's most potent passing attacks, neither of which disappointed fans during the course of the high-scoring contest, the North Division slugfest ultimately came down to the Lions' ability to capitalize on a timely turnover opportunity late in the game that was created by clutch defensive play by the visitors down the stretch.
Following six lead changes and two ties during the offensive showdown, EMCC recovered a fumble on a botched exchange in the Rangers' backfield. The Lions immediately jumped on the opportunity, as All-America quarterback Randall Mackey hit Stephon Johnson for 42 yards to move inside the red zone. After a 10-yard Mackey run around the left side, Starkville's Pat Shed followed suit with a 5-yard scamper around left end for the eventual difference-maker. Replacing starting placekicker Phillip Dimino, who had missed three extra-point attempts earlier in the game, redshirt freshman Brett Spencer of Amory nailed the PAT with 2:23 left in the contest to break a 42-42 deadlock.
Entering the contest leading the NJCAA ranks in passing offense, the Rangers were forced to begin the game's final drive on their own 23-yard line as a result of Jermayne Lett's clutch open-field tackle on the ensuing kickoff. With sophomore Casey Weston at the controls, Northwest moved quickly into EMCC territory. Aided by a pass interference penalty called on the Lions during an apparent pass interception by Anthony Hines, the Rangers were able to get inside the red zone. However, East Mississippi's stout defensive contingent took a stand to prevent the home team from tying the game or perhaps taking the lead in the waning moments. Following Chris McFarland's game-saving pass breakup in the end zone on Northwest's standout receiver Michael Lindsey with less than a minute to play, Lett again came up huge with an 8-yard sack of Weston. Backed up to the 25-yard line as a result of EMCC's fifth sack of the night, Weston's fourth-and-long pass attempt with the game clock running down was intercepted by linebacker Dujuan Brown inside the 5-yard line to preserve the Lions' critical divisional win on the road against a nationally ranked opponent.
In what promised to be an aerial-filled offensive explosion, featuring two of the nation's top quarterbacks, turned out to be just that – and more. Despite playing on soggy turf caused by excessive September rains in the Magnolia State, EMCC's Mackey wound up with 27-of-40 passing totals for a career-high 451 yards and three touchdowns, along with three interceptions coming on successive third-quarter possessions. The reigning NJCAA Region 23 Offensive MVP from Louisiana also ran for 62 yards on 14 carries, including back-to-back scoring runs of 7 and 9 yards in the second quarter to stake the defending MACJC North Division champions to a 29-13 lead. As the Rangers fell to 3-2 overall and 1-1 in division play, Northwest's Weston finished the game with 27-of-51 passing for 333 yards on the night with five touchdowns and the game-ending pick.
The high-powered offenses certainly lived up to their pre-game billing early, as the two teams combined to score on the first five possessions of the contest. EMCC's Dimino got things started with a 34-yard field goal – his first of the season – coming three minutes into the game. It took the Rangers all of 18 seconds to take the lead on Weston's 43-yard aerial to Lindsey. Kevin Buford's point-after try failed and marked the first of five missed PAT attempts between the two teams on the night.
With Mackey going 5-of-5 on the ensuing possession, the Lions reclaimed the lead on Bill Franks' 2-yard score on an end-around play with 7:02 remaining in the opening period. Dimino's missed PAT kept the score at 9-6 in favor of the Lions. Benefitting from excellent field position at midfield after a squib-kick on the ensuing kickoff, Weston capped a five-play, 49-yard drive with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Colton Barnett. Buford's successful PAT conversion with 5:28 left in the first quarter put the home team back on top by a 13-9 tally.
Three minutes later on a possession that was initially stalled by EMCC penalties, Mackey drove the Lions 91 yards on just eight plays to take back the advantage. Set up by Mackey's 39-yard strike to Stephon Johnson, sophomore Lance Lewis snared the first of his pair of touchdown grabs of the game from 6 yards out to put the visitors back in front 15-13 after Dimino misfired on his second straight PAT attempt.
As the 28-point opening quarter of play drew to a close, the Lions seemed to take control of the contest by establishing their defensive presence and disrupting Northwest's offensive flow during the second 15-minute session. EMCC took advantage of a fumbled reception by Darryl Kinkle, followed later by a 15-yard facemask penalty on the Lions' subsequent possession, by turning the miscues into seven points on Mackey's first of two scoring runs and a successful PAT conversion.
Following an empty possession by the Rangers, East Mississippi scored on its fifth straight offensive opportunity to open the game by marching 80 yards on 11 plays. Mixing up the run and the pass on the drive, Mackey's 9-yard keeper into the end zone around the right corner gave the Lions some temporary breathing room at 29-13 with 6:49 remaining until intermission.
However, Northwest gained some needed momentum that would carry over into the second half by cutting the deficit to 29-21 on a 28-yard scoring pass from Weston to Otis Mays. Weston then hit Barnett for the two-point conversion with 3:33 remaining to close out the first-half scoring.
The Rangers opened the second stanza by establishing the running game on an 11-play, 58-yard drive that resulted in a 6-yard touchdown grab by Xavier Lee. A successful two-point conversion pass play from Weston to Mays knotted the score at 29-29 nearly five minutes into the second half.
Victimized by Mackey interceptions on three successive possessions, the Lions did not produce any points in the third quarter and had to rely on stellar play from their defensive unit to help maintain damage control. EMCC responded to the first errant aerial with sacks by Columbus' Alvin Ellis and Devin Hawkins of Caledonia to force a four-play possession from the Rangers. East Mississippi's second interception was a bit more costly, as Northwest's Stacey Lake picked off Mackey's intended pass to Mitchell McCurry in the end zone to thwart a possible go-ahead drive. The Lion defenders again collectively stood their ground and forced a three-and-out on three straight incomplete passes from Weston.
Unfortunately for the visitors, their miscues finally caught up with them when Northwest's Timothy Kirk returned Mackey's third interception to the 23-yard line. One play later, the Rangers quickly cashed in on the turnover with Calvin Malone sprinting 23 yards down the left sideline with 2:22 left in the third quarter to put the home team back on top by a 35-29 count.
EMCC didn't panic and methodically put together a well-balanced nine-play drive that covered 69 yards, capped by an 18-yard Mackey scoring strike to Johnson in the right corner of the end zone. A sophomore from Gulfport and the team's leading receiver on the year, Johnson had six catches for 153 yards on the evening. Dimino tacked on the PAT to give the Lions a perilous one-point edge one minute into the final quarter.
The Rangers appeared to be headed to pay dirt themselves on their subsequent possession, but a self-recovered fumble of a completed pass play that lost yardage and an off-sides penalty stalled a potential go-ahead drive just prior to the red zone. East Mississippi's quick-strike prowess was instantly showcased when Lewis hauled in a Mackey pass over the middle and out-ran everyone en route to a 70-yard, catch-and-run jaunt to the end zone. Dimino's third missed point-after try of the game sailed left and kept the score at 42-35 with 10:31 remaining in the contest.
Assisted by an off-sides penalty and a critical roughing-the-passer call on the visitors, Northwest seized the opportunity to tie up the score at 42-42 less than two minutes later on a Weston-to-Lindsey hook-up from 25 yards out. Buford's all-important extra point with 8:45 left on the clock set up the game's dramatic final minutes.
Head coach Buddy Stephens' 4-1 East Mississippi Lions, now 2-0 and in sole possession of first place in the MACJC's North Division, open the month of October on the road by traveling to Clarksdale to take on Coahoma next Thursday evening (Oct. 1). EMCC then returns to the Scooba campus for Homecoming 2009 on Saturday, Oct. 10, when Northeast Mississippi comes to town for a 2 p.m. divisional battle at Sullivan-Windham Field.