PERKINSTON, Miss. – Close football games come down to inches one way or another. One fourth down conversion by the slimmest of margins proved to be the difference in the fourth quarter as first-ranked East Mississippi Community College (11-1 overall) held off second-ranked Arizona Western College (9-1 overall) 31-28 in the NJCAA Football Championship Game at the Mississippi Bowl.
The Mats trailed 28-21 near the end of the third quarter, but the defense had forced East Mississippi into fourth and 16 at the AWC 33-yard line. EMCC quarterback Lindsey Scott, Jr. rifled a pass to Brandon Rodgers at the 24, and Rodgers wriggled down to the 17. When the officials measured, EMCC had just barely picked up the first down by less than the nose of the football.
AWC’s defense held at that spot, and East Mississippi’s Taylor Crabtree knocked in a 34-yard field goal just barely inside the right upright on the first play of the fourth quarter to put the Lions up 31-21.
Both sides stalled on offense in the fourth quarter until the Mats took over on downs with 6:42 to play. The Mats marched 76 yards in 12 plays and capped the drive with a touchdown. Quarterback Bryce Perkins lofted the ball to Dominick Anderson for a touchdown that cut the lead to 31-28 with 1:54 to play. Perkins was named the AWC Offensive MVP after finishing 18-32 for 139 yards and a touchdown while adding 104 rushing yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
East Mississippi recovered an onside kick, and EMCC Tyrell Price picked up a critical first down with a 10-yard run on second and ten. The Lions ran out the clock once the Mats ran out of timeouts.
In the first quarter, East Mississippi struck first. The only sustained drive of the first half for the Lions went 63 yards for a touchdown. Scott found Dontario Drummond on a crossing route for a 13-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Scott was the East Mississippi Offensive MVP after going 15-28 for 170 yards and two touchdowns and one interception with 14 rushes for 40 yards.
On AWC’s next possession, EMCC’s Ty Williams picked off Perkins on third down. Williams ran it back for a 49-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead, and the Mats seemed like they were in trouble.
AWC didn’t panic, and the Mats chewed up five minutes of clock on the way to a touchdown in the middle of the second quarter. AWC ran play action on second and goal from the three, and Jack Colletto threw the ball to a wide open Anderson to trim the lead to 14-7. That was the score headed to halftime.
The Mats gobbled up possession in the first half and kept a powerful East Mississippi offense off the field by holding the ball for 23 minutes.
Both offenses got on track in the third quarter. EMCC came out of halftime strong and stormed down the field. Price ran it for an 8-yard touchdown and a 21-7 lead.
AWC answered with a five minute drive of its own that ended in the end zone. Greg Bell III ran off the left side for a 7-yard touchdown that made it 21-14. Bell finished with 123 yards on 25 carries.
Rodgers returned the following kickoff 54 yards for EMCC, and the Lions started at the Matador 39 yard line. Two plays later, Scott threw a short pass to Kirk Merritt, and Merritt ran it home for an 18-yard touchdown to lead 28-14.
Arizona Western marched right back down the field to score. Perkins danced through the EMCC defense for a seven-yard touchdown, and the extra point made it 28-21.
AWC outgained East Mississippi on the game 381-246 in total yards, and the Mats held the ball for 40 minutes.
This was the second straight season the Mats made it to the NJCAA Football Championship and third time under head coach Tom Minnick. Defensive end Tyrik Jones was named the AWC Defensive MVP with seven tackles and one pass breakup.
Arizona Western College is one of the top community colleges in Arizona. The college boasts partnerships with all three state universities that include face-to-face classes in Yuma. AWC leads the state in enrollment growth over the past 10 years and handed out more than 2,300 certificates and degrees in 2016-17.