November 4, 2012 1:03:06 AM
SCOOBA -- With 21 seconds left in regulation, the Copiah-Lincoln Community College football team was down to one person who could single-handedly beat East Mississippi C.C.
Joe Craig did just that.
Craig's 90-yard kickoff return with 9.6 seconds left in regulation time lifted the 15th-ranked Wolfpack to a 47-46 victory against the 10th-ranked Lions in a Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges state semifinal playoff game at Sullivan-Windham Field.
Defending state champion EMCC appeared poised to open its state title defense with a victory when Quez Johnson scored from 1 yard out with 21 seconds left. Instead, the kick return propelled Co-Lin to the state championship game for a second time in three seasons, and also handed EMCC its first home loss in the two-year history of its new stadium.
"Our blocking on our kick return unit is outstanding," Co-Lin coach Glenn Davis said. "We go into each game with the confidence we can break at least one kick. In this game, we came close two others times before finally getting Joe to take it home. He picked a really great time to do that."
The Lions (8-2) surrendered a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter. Still, the home crowd was very much alive when EMCC moved 75 yards on 10 plays in slightly less than two minutes. The Lions were nibbling up the middle to set up a Morgan Rhodes' potential game-winning field goal. Instead, Johnson broke a tackle and kept the quarterback draw up the middle 10 yards for a touchdown.
Co-Lin (8-2) answered as Craig nestled the football in just shy of the 10-yard line, reversed his field, and picked up two blocks to spring him around the right end. EMCC had two defenders in pursuit but neither caught the sophomore from Gaffney, S.C.
"I knew it was our only hope," Craig said. "We were so pumped to play this game because we knew we were playing one of the best teams in the state. They had not lost here, so we took that as a personal challenge."
EMCC hadn't played many shootouts in its national title defense this season. Saturday proved different. The teams combined for 1,121 yards and 13 touchdowns.
After seeing a 20-game, two-season win streak snapped last week in a 24-23 North Division loss at Itawamba C.C., EMCC bounced back strong. The Lions overcame at 14-7 first-quarter deficit and held the better of the competition for most of the afternoon.
"We had it right there for us and didn't execute," EMCC sophomore running back Xavier Hogan said. "Even though last week hurt, we really came back out ready to play. We really wanted to defend the state title. It is hard to explain what happened to us. We made some mistakes that we normally don't make."
Perhaps, the true separation came in special teams. EMCC has sparkled in that area most of the season. However, a missed extra point opened the door last week for an ICC comeback.
On Saturday, the Lions had a blocked extra point and while Rhodes hit two field goals, he missed another from 21 yards. A bad snap on a fourth down punt attempt meant Co-Lin only had to march 22 yards for a 41-40 lead on a Darius Guy touchdown with 2 minutes, 47 seconds remaining. A lack of blocking on the kick return then sealed the deal.
"Special teams has been a major issue the last couple of weeks," EMCC coach Buddy Stephens said. "We knew we had to get better there and quite simply we didn't. It is hard to pinpoint that as the reason we lost the game. We scored 46 points. That should be enough to win a playoff game."
EMCC had the only two takeaways -- interceptions by Frank Richardson Jr. and Jason Yarbor. Still, the Lions allowed 481 yards and three touchdowns in the final 5:12.
"The one thing about our kids is they keep plugging away," Davis said. "When the playoffs began, we told our kids that we had played Gulf Coast (C.C.) and Northwest (Mississippi C.C.) and the bottom line was we didn't play well against those two teams. The challenge to our kids was simple. Let's go in there and play well and see how really good we can be."
A 38-yard run by Guy ran the Wolfpack out to a 14-7 advantage early. EMCC then held the final four possessions of the second half and grabbed a 19-14 halftime lead. Rhodes connected on a 29-yard kick as the half expired to extend that lead.
The Lions appeared in good shape when Hogan scored from 1 yard out on the first possession of the second half. EMCC matched scores until being done end by the final onslaught.
"Coaches always tell us to play to the final whistle," Co-Lin freshman running back Darius Gray said. "I am really proud of my guys for finding a way. There aren't many people who thought we could come in here and win this game."
EMCC ran 108 plays in the game. Johnson was 40 of 57 passes for a season-high 431 yards. The Lions ran the ball 51 times for 209 yards. Johnson also paced the rushing effort with 22 rushes for 88 yards. Nick Brassell led all receivers with 12 catches and a season-high 185 yards in his final game with EMCC.
"We had the numbers," Stephens said. "It is really hard to find the disconnect for this team. You have to play hard every week in this league because every week is a challenge. We struggled to answer that challenge the final two weeks."
Co-Lin will face Gulf Coast (9-1) at 2 p.m. Saturday for the state championship in Perkinston. Gulf Coast won the regular season meeting, 54-21.
n In the other state semifinal, former Columbus High School standout Damian Baker had 22 carries for 205 yards, but his Northwest Mississippi C.C. team lost to Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. 43-17.
Baker also caught one pass for 3 yards as Northwest Mississippi saw its season end at 7-2.
Clint Hatten was 19 of 26 for 261 yards and three touchdowns for Mississippi Gulf Coast (9-1), which will play host to the state title game next week.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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