October 11, 2013 11:19:22 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
SCOOBA -- East Mississippi Community College football coach Buddy Stephens has been worrying about his Lions' practice habits.
This week was different.
"We came out Monday and you could tell this was a different week," EMCC freshman reserve quarterback Todd Mays said. "We had a really big statement to make."
The nation's No. 3 team made the statement loud and clear. In a battle for the North Division lead, EMCC blew out Northeast Mississippi C.C. 59-0 Thursday night at Sullivan-Windham Field.
With the victory, EMCC improved to 7-0 and 4-0 in North Division play. The Lions have won 31 of 34 division games played with Stephens at the helm. When Hinds C.C. upset No. 2 Jones Junior College on Thursday night, the Lions not only saw a chance to inch up in the national rankings, but they also became the state's final undefeated team.
Starting quarterback Dontreal Pruitt threw for 319 yards and touchdowns 24 through 26. Pruitt chuckled when told Stephens lamented the lack of focus last week in practice before a win at Holmes C.C.
"We really don't try to give (Stephens) too many things to worry about, so sometimes he has to go find things," Pruitt said. "It is all good. We have his back. Sometimes we are just a tad bit better when the lights come on for real."
On Thursday, EMCC had no trouble against an opponent that entered the game 3-0 in division play. When the night ended, the gap between the two in the standings felt a whole lot wider than one game.
"We knew this was for first place, so that really got our attention," Mays said. "The best thing about this team is its mental focus and determination. We strive for total perfection in everything we do. Some teams would feel pressure from that. It is the opposite for us. It is an expectation."
Northeast (3-4, 3-1) finished with 21 yards of offense. The Tigers had positive gains on 26 of 59 plays. Of those 26 plays, 12 went for 1 yard. It is the fourth time this season EMCC has held an opponent under 100 yards of total offense.
EMCC posted its fifth shutout by forcing five turnovers and recording 11 sacks. The Lions got their sixth defensive touchdown on an 18-yard interception return by Fenest Armstrong.
"The defense is really good," Stephens said. "I think we have said that a few times."
Christian Russell and D.J. Pettway each had three sacks. Laderrick Roberts had two fumble recoveries, while Armstrong's high school teammate Allen Sentimore had his team-best fifth and sixth interceptions.
"(With that defense), we really don't have to do that much (on offense)," Pruitt said. "I am really glad those guys come out of my locker room."
EMCC scored on its first three possessions and led 38-0 at halftime. The Lions punted one time, played a second-straight turnover-free game, and finished with 552 yards.
The biggest storyline may have been the emergence of freshman wide receiver Isaac Johnson, who had his first two-touchdown night, including a spectacular catch in the end zone while sandwiched between two defenders.
"This offense is so much fun to watch," said Johnson, who drew a few more assignments as sophomore receiver Brandon Bell dressed but didn't play Thursday night with a tweaked hamstring. "To be able to be out there and to make plays is really a special feeling. It means a lot to me that the coaches have put enough trust in me to put me out there in these spots. At first, everything is so fast you are a little intimidated. When you make some plays, you start feeling like you belong."
EMCC will close the regular season with a game at Northwest Mississippi C.C. and a home game with No. 13 Itawamba C.C. With the proper results around the league, EMCC could clinch a playoff berth and a division title Thursday night in Senatobia.
"This team has a business-man like approach," Stephens said. "That is why they are so much fun to coach. They really understand when it is time to turn serious and get the job done. This may be the most fun I have ever had coaching because of the attitude and demeanor of this team. It is an incredible group. They are a very good football team. They understand that, though, and they know what lies ahead."
Even the rookies, like Johnson, are looking forward to a grueling stretch run. As he spoke with family members with his left leg heavily wrapped, the former Meridian High School standout said the trainers told him he had suffered a minor ligament injury.
Johnson hopes the injury is not season-ending.
"It had better not be," Johnson said. "The best part of our season is yet to come."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter