By Jamie Wachter / Sports Editor
The winning record and the berth in the MACJC state playoffs are already taken care of. And winning the third state title in four years can’t be achieved until the postseason begins next week.
So the main goal for East Mississippi Community College when it travels to Itawamba for homecoming today is to keep its national championship hopes alive. The Lions, the defending national champions, are third in the NJCAA poll behind Iowa Western and Butler (Kan.).
“It’s a big game for us in that we need to keep any of our national title hopes,” EMCC coach Buddy Stephens said. “It’s one of those games that it’s hard to read a team on, in how prepared they are.
“But it’s one that they are a good enough team that if you don’t bring your ‘A’ game, you’ll get your backside beat.”
The Indians, 5-3 and 3-2 in the MACJC North Division, are definitely good enough defensively to give opponents trouble. Itawamba is second in the state in passing defense, allowing opponents only 159.1 yards per game. That stingy Indian unit is led by a trio of sackmasters in Quad Freeman (12.5 sacks), CJ Jackson (10 sacks) and Brandon Smith (six sacks).
And that will provide an interesting test for EMCC’s state-best passing and total offense. Powered by reigning NJCAA Offensive Player of the Week Quez Johnson, the Lions average 300 yards passing per week. Johnson has completed 57.4 percent of his passes for 2,153 yards and 24 touchdowns with just six interceptions. His main targets are Corey Smith (43 catches for 649 yards), Nick Brassell (32 catches for 435 yards), Billy Shed (29 catches for 393 yards) and Martay Maddox (27 catches for 432 yards).
“They are second in the state in pass defense and that’s kind of what our forte is,” Stephens said. “I think our big thing is, we have to go in and play solid and see what happens.
“We have to make them one-dimensional on offense and we have to be able to throw the ball around and run our offense.”
Itawamba features a high-powered passing attack of its own, throwing for 253.5 yards a week behind Griff Loftis, who has thrown for 1,393 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“They’ve got a bunch of sophomores playing their last game at their field and it’s their homecoming,” Stephens said. “We try to take it personal when someone picks us for homecoming.”
That disrespect could be the key for the Lions in coming out with the intensity needed following last week’s top-5 showdown in Scooba where EMCC edged Northwest Mississippi to wrap up its fourth North Division title in five years.
“I think they’ve put it behind them,” Stephens said. “But it’s always like pulling teeth sometimes to get them to understand that you have to prepare every day. It’s a long week and we gave them off Friday and Saturday and getting back into the swing of things. It’s all about keeping your timing and getting everybody to understand the importance of preparing every day.
“I’ve told this team all year long that its toughest opponent is the one in the mirror. If we can prepare well, we’re a good football team. When we don’t prepare well, we struggle.”