September 3, 2014 10:36:44 AM
SCOOBA -- In its four-year history, East Mississippi Community College's Sullivan-Windham Field has drawn rave reviews as one of the state's premier football facilities.
One group has enjoyed its visit there more than any other.
In 2012, Copiah-Lincoln C.C. came to Scooba as heavy underdog but left with a surprising 47-46 victory against EMCC in the opening round of the Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges state playoffs. The Wolves snagged the victory when Joe Craig ran a kickoff back 90 yards with 9.6 seconds left in regulation.
That result is EMCC's only loss in its home stadium in 18 games.
Once again the home team will have a massive winning streak on the line when No. 1 EMCC plays host to No. 3 Co-Lin at 7 Thursday night.
"Each week, we want to be 1-0 when the week ends," EMCC sophomore running back Preston Baker said. "Still, we know how much this game means. If you want to win a championship, you have to win every game, so we know just how important this game is for both teams."
EMCC is aiming for its third National Junior College Athletic Association national championship in four seasons. Though early, this game shapes up as pivotal in the national championship race. EMCC is 5-0 under seventh-year coach Buddy Stephens in games against top-three teams.
"It may just be the second game, but it is really big," EMCC sophomore wide receiver Brandon Acker said. "We feel very strongly about protecting our house. No team is going to come in here and take anything from us without a fight. As long as we concentrate on doing the things we are capable of doing, we should be OK."
EMCC won all 12 games it played in 2013 and extended its winning streak with a 52-14 season-opening victory against Southwest Mississippi C.C. on Thursday night in Summit. In his EMCC debut, quarterback Chad Kelly -- a transfer from Clemson University -- was 31 of 38 for 355 yards and four touchdowns. Acker led all receivers with 10 catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.
"After the first couple of series, we really found a comfort level out there," Acker said. "It feels like Chad has been here a long time. He was out there throwing darts and receivers were making some big catches."
EMCC broke a 7-7 tie by scoring 24 points in the second quarter. Such mini-outbursts weren't uncommon a year ago, as EMCC had as large as a 51-point third quarter against Northwest Mississippi C.C.
"We really put a lot of talented playmakers out there on the field," Kelly said. "It is hard to believe we have this many go-to guys. Once we get comfortable with each other, we should be able to make some plays. Hopefully, we can have this type of output every week."
EMCC didn't face a ranked opponent in the regular season a year ago, so the September "Big Game" hasn't been common. The Lions have won 10-straight regular-season games against South Division opponents. Still, Stephens encouraged his squad after last week's victory to have its best week of practice in anticipation of facing "potentially the best team" on its schedule.
"I really like this team a lot," Stephens said. "We had penalties. We had blown assignments. We had things to correct. Every team does in week one. We also have a group that is really determined and focused. You can't overstate the importance of one game before you have played any of your division games. However, we know the numbers and we know what is at stake. It's early, but it's big."
Co-Lin opened the season with a 37-13 victory against then-No. 19 Itawamba C.C. The Wolves built a 30-3 halftime lead and were never in danger in their season opener.
Freshman wide receiver Josh Gray led Co-Lin with seven receptions for 183 yards. Quarterback Daniel Fitzwater threw for 400 yards and three touchdowns.
The numbers suggest a potential shootout. EMCC only allowed five touchdowns in the regular season last year, including no more than 13 points in one game.
In the 2012 playoff meeting, EMCC racked up 640 yards and 26 first downs, but saw a 12-point lead slip away in the final quarter.
"We take the challenge of playing a great offense personally," EMCC sophomore linebacker Demetrius Cain said. "We have a reputation on defense for not allowing anything. It is our job to go out there Thursday night and back that reputation up."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
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