October 28, 2012 1:16:51 AM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
FULTON -- With his playing career at Itawamba Community College officially over, sophomore linebacker Brandon Smith may look into the advice-giving business.
"We were the underdogs and we knocked them off," said Smith, a former Aberdeen High School standout. "They have nothing to say now. (EMCC players) had been talking and tweeting at us all week about what they were going to do to ICC. If anybody wants any comment or wants to know how to beat Scooba, all they have to do is come talk to us here at ICC."
Tyler Jackson's 43 yard field goal with 16 seconds left in regulation time lifted ICC to a 24-23 upset of third-ranked East Mississippi C.C. before a boisterous Homecoming crowd at Eaton Stadium.
The victory snapped EMCC's five-game win streak in the series. It also snapped EMCC's 20-game winning streak, 20-game regular-season winning streak, 14-game North Division road winning streak, and 13-game North Division winning streak.
The result had no impact on the playoff race. Playing for pride, Itawamba (6-3, 4-2 division) ended the season on a three-game winning streak. EMCC (8-1, 5-1) remains North Division champion, but it saw almost all hopes of a repeat national championship dashed when quarterback Quez Johnson was slammed to the turf by Aberdeen's Fred Ward at midfield as time expired.
"Itawamba has a very good football team, and they played well," said EMCC fifth-year coach Buddy Stephens, who lost a North Division road game for first time as head coach. "We have a very good team and we did not play well. This is a rivalry game, and it is a big win for them. Jon (Williams) and his staff do such a tremendous job. This will be a help to their recruiting. It was their night."
Jackson, a freshman from Lafayette County High School, drilled the 43-yard game-winner with about 5 yards to spare. The lead changed hands four times in the final quarter.
"I told the line to block and for my holder to give me a good hold," Jackson said. "If that happened, I knew I would make the kick. I hit the ball solid. It felt great leaving my foot. This is easily the biggest kick I have ever had."
Playing nine days after securing the division crown with a hard-fought victory against Northwest Mississippi C.C., EMCC appeared a step lethargic Saturday. The Lions were whistled for four personal foul penalties in the fourth quarter. EMCC also lost the turnover battle (3-to-1) for the first time this season.
"It was all about discipline," Stephens said. "I am the head coach. That all comes back to me. We lost our edge, and that doesn't happen with us. We played today like we had practiced all week. We played like we had everything taken care of. If we play like this again next week, we will be packing things up."
EMCC will play host to South Division runner-up Copiah-Lincoln C.C. (7-2) in a first-round state playoff game at 2 p.m. Saturday in Scooba. Those teams didn't meet in the regular season.
For Itawamba, there will be no such playoff game for a third straight season. However, Saturday's victory served as a nice consolation prize.
"This goes far past the coaches," said Williams, who completed his third season. "This is about a group of kids who believed and never gave up. Our goal each week was to be 1-0 at the end of the week. Even when we lost (a playoff chance), we kept working. We kept trying to find a way to get better. You can tell by the way we played today, our kids wanted this badly."
ICC began on the attack from the opening kickoff. An interception by Smith set the Indians up with a short field on their first possession. ICC moved the necessary 35 yards on six plays. Aberdeen's Rashad Pargo capped the drive with a a 4-yard touchdown catch from Griff Loftis.
ICC intercepted Johnson three times in the first half and built a 14-0 lead. This time, Ronald Carswell was on the receiving end of a 40-yard catch from Loftis.
EMCC answered with 41-yard drive and a 5-yard touchdown run by Rodriguez Moore. LeDarious Clark gave his team a much-needed spark with a 51-yard kick return to start that drive. After the score, the Lions then recovered a squib kick only to see Johnson's third interception give all the momentum right back.
The 14-7 halftime deficit was the first time EMCC trailed at the intermission this season.
"We had them down, but we had to keep applying the pressure," Smith said. "As sophomores, you want to leave the program on a high note. We had to keep doing our thing."
EMCC finally got to a tie on a 95-yard, 12-play drive on its first possession of the second half. Johnson hit Martay Mattox for two big pickups. He later found Moore for a 16-yard touchdown catch.
Justin Cox followed with an interception -- EMCC's only takeaway of the game. The Lions did nothing with that bonus possession, but three possessions later battled on top with a 31-yard field goal by Morgan Rhodes.
As quickly as the lead was built, things unraveled. Two personal foul penalties resulted in 30 yards of markoffs and moved the Indians down the field quickly. Tobias Lofton found a gaping hole in the middle of the defense for a 21-yard touchdown and a 21-17 lead.
EMCC answered with a 61-yard, 11-play march. Johnson capped the march with a 1-yard run on the final of his 28 carries in the game. Rhodes' PAT was good before being brought back by a holding penalty. The re-kick missed and loomed large seconds later.
In hurry-up mode, ICC used its timeouts to scamper 63 yards on 15 plays. Adrian Brown had a critical 7-yard reception on third-and-8 to set up the game-winner.
"We knew we had this," Jackson said. "All week in practice, we thought we could win this game. You could tell there was something special about how we practiced this week. What a way to end the year."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter