September 2, 2016 11:39:41 AM
ELLISVILLE -- Dakota Allen, Tim Bonner, and Chauncey Rivers made plays against Division I opposition last season.
The setting was much different Thursday night when they played in the season opener for their new team, top-ranked East Mississippi Community College.
Still, leadership was needed and plays were to be made. In the end, short-handed EMCC didn't make enough of them in a 27-25 loss to Jones County Junior College before a crowd of 5,500 at Bobcat Stadium.
EMCC lost its opener for the first time since 2010, and for only the second time in Buddy Stephens' nine seasons as head coach.
Allen felt right at home when he read quarterback Mason Blocker and intercepted a pass in the first quarter. He made similar plays a year ago for Texas Tech.
"At the end of the day, it's still football," Allen said. "This program is about winning, so we don't make excuses about not having enough guys. We had our chances. That third quarter was tough on us."
The Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) allows for a 55-player roster. EMCC had 32 players available due to suspensions being served for a brawl against Mississippi Delta C.C. in the final game of the 2015 regular season. The Lions also had only six coaches available. Stephens and new defensive coordinator Ed Holly were in that group. Offensive coordinator Marcus Wood -- the normal play-caller -- didn't make the trip.
"I really couldn't be prouder of a group of guys," Stephens said. "This is the proudest I have ever been after a loss. We had some situations where we didn't line up right and little things like that. Overall, we played really hard and had a chance. The defense was really good.
"We have now served our time. You will see a really good football team on the field next week."
The task won't get easier for EMCC next week as it plays at No. 4 Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C. However, early season losses usually do little to the rankings. It is also a safe bet pollsters won't hold the loss against EMCC. However, an 0-2 start would be a different story.
"I am ready to get everybody out there because this team can really be special," said Bonner, a defensive lineman who transferred from Louisville. "This program is all about winning championships, and we can start working on that next week. Nobody will be down after this loss. We knew it was going to be a tough situation. We learn from it and move on."
Despite being short-handed, EMCC committed only seven penalties and had one turnover.
EMCC asked freshmen to carry the load on offense. The Lions didn't dress out Florida State transfer quarterback De'Andre Johnson because he was on the field last season when the fight between EMCC and Mississippi Delta took place.
In his first career starter, former Itawamba Agricultural High School standout Vijay Miller was 22 of 37 for 242 yards. He threw two touchdowns to Raphael Leonard and another to Daniel Crowell. Of the 22 completions, 17 came in the second half.
The struggles were on a makeshift offensive line, which had to borrow players from the defense. A couple of in-game injuries didn't help the cause, either. The Lions averaged less than 1 yard per carry. Miller was sacked six times.
"We really had a struggle on the offensive line," Stephens said. "We really couldn't have any long drives to help our defense out."
Despite the deficiencies, EMCC still led 13-3 at halftime thanks in large part to an excellent punting game and two field goals from Taylor Crabtree. The Lions aided their cause by forcing three turnovers. In addition to the interception, Rivers had a strip and Bonner had a fumble recovery, while Brian Cole, a transfer from Michigan, forced a fumble on a kick return.
"It was fun being out there with my brothers," Cole said. "I think we are going to learn from this game. We didn't do everything we wanted to do, but this team is going to get better and better."
In the third quarter, EMCC's defense tired and the JCJC rushing game came alive. The Bobcats drove 17 yards after a bad snap on a fourth-down punt attempt. Jones then drove 69 yards on nine plays and later hit a 54-yard pass play from Mason Blocker to Jeriko Morris.
Trailing 24-13, EMCC cut into the deficit when Crowell caught a 20-yard touchdown from Miller.
Cole was again in the right place on the next play as he fielded a sky kickoff to give his team back-to-back possessions. EMCC drove inside the JCJC 5-yard line before a potential game-winning score was denied on a fumble into the end zone.
JCJC then drove 86 yards on 17 plays, but EMCC had the answers and forced a field goal to keep the game within one score.
A 45-yard kick return by Leonard set up a 55-yard, eight-play drive. Miller hit Leonard for the touchdown. A perfectly-thrown two-point conversion ball to Crowell was knocked away by safety Jonathan Abram with 2 minutes, 35 seconds left.
"You saw a little bit about what this team is all about," Stephens said. "We have not faced adversity often. Tonight, we stared adversity in the eyes and didn't back down. So many guys stepped up. So many guys made plays. We just didn't have enough guys to make enough plays."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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