By Jamie Wachter / Sports Editor
The Meridian Star
Averaging more than 47.3 points per game this season and 39.4 in the five seasons with Buddy Stephens at the helm, East Mississippi Community College's offense was missing in action most of the way last week.
After being shut out for nearly three quarters, the No. 4 Lions broke free late to defeat Holmes 35-0 and remain undefeated at 6-0 and 3-0 in the MACJC North Division. As EMCC heads to Northeast Mississippi for another division game today, Stephens is hoping last week's struggle was an eye opener.
“The big thing is we have to just work on the focus and execution of the offense,” he said. “Not trying to overreact to it, we just need to work on some things: we've got to give the quarterback time to throw, we've got to make good decisions in our run game and at the quarterback spot. It wasn't just one certain area. We have to tighten up on a few things. We just didn't play a good game.
“We've just got to work on focusing and executing and finishing on offense. We'll be fine if we just concentrate on us and worry about what we do as an offense.”
While there are still areas that could use improvement, it wasn't an entire disaster for the Lions. Despite not piling up points until late, EMCC still racked up yards, totaling more than 500 yards against the Bulldogs. Freshman quarterback Quez Johnson leads the state with 1,602 yards passing with 18 touchdowns to just four interceptions, while completing 54.6 percent of his passes. Corey Smith is his favorite target, hauling in 29 passes for 499 yards. Billy Shed has caught 26 passes for 332 yards and Nick Brassell has 23 receptions for 307 yards. Sophomore running back Rodriguez Moore has added 584 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. But that talent still struggled to complete drives last week and that inability to score at the end of productive drives reiterates Stephens' desire for better finishing by the Lions.
That takes on added importance as the Lions head into the home stretch of the season battling for playoff positioning, currently one-half game behind North leader Northwest Mississippi. The Rangers, who face third-place Holmes this week, visit Sullivan-Windham Field next week in what could be a division championship game. Northeast and Itawamba, who host the Lions in the regular season finale, are each 1-2 and clinging to postseason dreams. EMCC is aware of the pressure at hand.
“This is a big game, it's the playoffs for us,” Stephens added. “We have to win these games to get in the playoffs and that's a goal. Our first goal is to have a winning record and we've got that and now the next goal is to make the playoffs and to do that, we need to beat Northeast. Bottom line.”
The Lions are used to playing with pressure. EMCC has made the postseason every year in Stephens' tenure, winning the division three times in the past four years and winning a pair of state titles in addition to last season's national championship. Still, the Lions' coach is hoping some improvement on one side of the ball could lessen the pressure on another.
EMCC's offense is the best in the state, averaging more than 540 yards of offense per game, leading the MACJC in passing at 304 yards per game and second in rushing at 239 yards of output. Still, the Lions struggled for most of the season opener against Pearl River on Sept. 1 in addition to last week's scoring drought.
However, EMCC had a chance to pull away late in both thanks to a stingy defense. In limiting opponents to just 58 yards rushing per game and 227 yards total, the Lions have allowed only 45 points all season. Or less than the Lions usually score per game.
“That's been that has been a solid constant for us all year,” Stephens said. “Defense has been good. We've just got to pick it up and do our part. And we will.
“It's great and it allows you to have those fof games on offense. You're not pressured to score 45-50 points every game and that's huge. But at the same point, we'd like to take some of the pressure off the defense a little bit. They play tough and play gritty. They know what they have in front of them. They've been executing on defense and now we need to execute on offense.”