East Mississippi Community College’s Ty Williams (6) celebrates after returning an interception for a touchdown. Photo by: Jason Dyess/Special to The Dispatch Buy this photo.
December 4, 2017 10:38:24 AM
PERKINSTON -- East Mississippi Community College sophomore wide receiver Brandon Rodgers looked like he was in his element for a long time Sunday.
Rodgers was barking out orders and his teammates were listening carefully for where to stand and where to look for a series of team photos.
No. 1 EMCC had just secured its fourth National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championship with a 31-28 victory against No. 2 Arizona Western College in the 10th Mississippi Bowl before a crowd of 3,168 at A.L. May Memorial Stadium.
It made sense for Rodgers to lead the post-game festivities because he had such a huge hand in the outcome.
"I had never won a state championship, let alone a national championship until this season," said Rodgers, a Mobile, Alabama native. "This is pretty big for this boy right here. I had a ton of family here. I had never played in an atmosphere like this or won a championship like this. It's special. It means the world to me."
Rodgers sparked two second-half scoring drives with kickoff returns of 54 and 24 yards. He also had a critical 13-yard catch for a first down in the waning minutes.
"I love returning kicks," Rodgers said. "Before the game, I went up to (quarterback) Lindsey (Scott Jr.) and said, 'Tell me where you want the ball. You need it at the 40, the 50, wherever you need it, I will get it there for you.' We are a team. It's been that way all year. I am just one man trying to help my team."
EMCC won its fourth national championship in seven seasons. However, the Lions had last won the title in 2014. Last season, the team lost its opener, won 11-straight games, and finished second nationally. While playing in the big game might have been taken for granted in the past, that wasn't the case on a picture-perfect late fall/early winter afternoon.
"It has been a long way back (to No. 1 in the nation)," EMCC sophomore defensive back Ty Williams said. "We felt like we belonged in (the national championship game) last year. It just wasn't fair we didn't play for it, so all of this time and effort went into getting back to this game. We played like this was for everything. It feels great to finally be back on top."
Williams intercepted a batted ball and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 first-quarter lead. On a day where offensive success was at a premium, big plays from the defense and special teams' excellence from Rodgers loomed large.
"The quarterback slightly under threw the (intercepted) ball," Williams said. "I was excited because I thought I could make that play. Then it bounced off their receiver. I don't even know how he got to it. After the bounce, I had to shift my body but did it perfectly, got the pick, and then I knew it was going to the house."
EMCC (11-1) overcame atypical struggles on offense to lead throughout the game. EMCC had 246 yards and 17 first downs. Scott was 15-for-28 for 170 yards with touchdowns to Dontario Drummond and Kirk Merritt and one interception. Leading rusher Tyrell Price was held to 43 yards, but he managed his NJCAA-best 24th rushing score of the season.
"This is an incredible way to end these two years of my life," Price said. "The national championship is the only goal for our program. We fell a little short last year. This is the end of our time together, and it was just a fun way to go out."
EMCC was ranked No. 1 in the nation when it saw a six-game winning streak snapped with a 61-38 loss at Northwest Mississippi C.C. The Lions fell to seventh nationally but finished with five-straight wins to get back to No. 1. The final five wins included a dramatic double-overtime victory against Northwest Mississippi C.C. for the state title.
"The Northwest loss really humbled us," Williams said. "We haven't been on that end of it very often around here. After that game, everything changed. We found that extra gear. We made that extra push. Nothing was going to be given to us. Honestly, we were blessed that it all came together and we had this opportunity."
Arizona Western (9-1) proved a handful, especially the challenge of corralling running back Greg Bell III. Bell ran for 122 yards and a touchdown, while quarterback Bryce Perkins ran for 103 yards and another score.
The Lions eventually made enough stops. Ty'Ree Evans was a force with 10 tackles and Jauan Collins stopped two threats with critical sacks.
In the fourth quarter, the Matadors were held to 8 yards and then -12 yards on back-to-back possessions as the Lions built a 31-21 lead. Emmanuel Bridges and Dwayne Pickett Jr. had huge plays in each of those stops.
"It was a whatever-it-takes mentality," EMCC coach Buddy Stephens said. "I am really proud of these kids. They had a lot of pressure. They were playing for the 2015 and 2016 teams, too. This was a three-year effort to win the national championship. Some of the titles came easier. No group has had to work this hard."
Rodgers was still working hard after the game. He and sophomore linebacker Quin Jones made sure all of the pictures were taken in a timely manner. Anyone who has watched previous national championship celebrations knows Stephens really likes to take lots of photos.
When the photos were done, it was time for the trophy presentation. The EMCC trophy case grew by two -- a fifth Mississippi Bowl trophy and a fourth national championship trophy.
Jones eyes lit up when it was time to move forward with his teammates to accept the awards.
"Man, two trophies," Jones said. "That's really cool. We get two trophies. That's pretty awesome."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
1. Patriots' Berry returns from injury with vengeance HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
2. Fitzgerald limited in MSU's spring opener COLLEGE SPORTS
3. MSU men beat Louisville to reach semifinals of NIT COLLEGE SPORTS
4. MSU men will take on Louisville in quarterfinals of NIT COLLEGE SPORTS
5. Third-quarter surge makes MSU three times sweet COLLEGE SPORTS