October 13, 2017 11:27:26 AM
East Mississippi Community College quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. was gracious in accepting the interview. He said all the correct things, like he always does.
Still, one could tell he wasn't sure what had just happened.
It was the kind of night for EMCC. With everything on the line, the nation's top-ranked team dropped a 61-38 decision to Northwest Mississippi C.C. on Thursday night before an overflow crowd at Bobby Franklin Field.
Four years ago, EMCC won 79-7 in this stadium. The crowd in attendance that night could have come in a handful of cars.
A tradition-rich program, Northwest Mississippi C.C. has been battered and bruised in this series. These teams don't like another. EMCC has held the upper hand by a large margin in recent memory. Entering Thursday's game, Buddy Stephens was 9-1 in the series as EMCC's coach.
But things turned dramatically in the latest installment of the rivalry, as Northwest Mississippi C.C. punched EMCC early and didn't give the Lions any hope of getting off the mat.
From 2011 until Thursday night, EMCC lost four games by a total of 11 points. Only four of Stephens' 12 losses before Thursday night were by more than 10 points. Only one (a 48-21 loss to Copiah-Lincoln C.C. in the 2010 MACJC playoffs) was worse.
On some nights, EMCC hasn't played well but overcame deficiencies to win, even against good opponents. On some nights, EMCC hasn't been at its best and suffered a heart-breaking defeat.
But no other night resembled this.
Play along the offensive and defensive lines has been a concern. Northwest Mississippi C.C. ran the ball with authority, averaging 5.1 yards per rush. By his admission, Northwest Mississippi C.C. quarterback Jack Abraham played his best game of the season. The Rangers also won the turnover battle.
More importantly, Northwest Mississippi C.C. wasn't intimidated. The Rangers thought they were going to win when they took the field. Few teams have really been up to this challenge in the past 10 seasons.
Northwest Mississippi C.C.'s major deficiency is the kicking game. The Rangers struggle in virtually all areas of special teams play. An inability to hit a pair of field goals late proved costly in a 27-24 loss to Itawamba C.C. EMCC beat ICC 48-24.
Granted, ICC also moved the ball at will against EMCC, but the Indians couldn't convert a couple of critical red zone trips.
Northwest Mississippi C.C. didn't have any problems converting. The Rangers were 7-for-11 on third down and 1-for-1 on fourth down. EMCC bailed Northwest Mississippi C.C. out with a critical third-down penalty.
However, that was the exception. Northwest Mississippi C.C. completed most drives (9-for-13 for touchdowns) by making plays, regardless of the down and distance.
EMCC receivers had five dropped passes, while a normally thrifty defense missed three interceptions. Normally, EMCC makes big plays early, steals the momentum, and keeps the other team on its heels for the rest of the game.
The script for this one was different.
Northwest Mississippi C.C. built a 14-3 lead. It executed a 75-yard, 12-play drive late in the second quarter. Monta Thomas capped that march with a touchdown for a 27-17 halftime lead. The Rangers then went 75 yards on the first drive of the second half to put the nation's top-ranked team in serious trouble.
Scott was asked the typical question after the defeat: Where does this team go from here?
The answer was expected, and it was the correct one. There is still a lot of football left to be played and there are still goals to be reached.
As bad as Thursday night was, Scott was correct.
In the latest NJCAA national rankings, EMCC held a 37-point lead over No. 2 Iowa Western College. If any team had a margin for error, it was EMCC. Tuesday's national rankings only included five other undefeated teams. EMCC can take care of one -- Hinds C.C. -- in the final regular-season game.
After making amends for Thursday by routing Coahoma C.C. next Saturday on Homecoming, EMCC most likely will finish with three straight ranked opponents -- Hinds and two MACJC state playoff opponents.
If EMCC wins its first-round playoff game, that most likely will mean a return trip to Senatobia to face Northwest Mississippi C.C. for the state championship. Evening the season series at a game apiece would provide a nice boost in the rankings and erase some of the sting from this game.
For a team in control of its national championship destiny before Thursday, it's a hard fall from grace. The Lions now go from poll-controlling to poll-watching.
It's a helpless feeling. But not quite the helpless feeling that was felt for three hours Thursday night.
Scott Walters is a sports reporter for The Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.
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