Photo/James Pugh

By Shawn Wansley

Jones Sports Information Director

ELLISVILLE – An MACJC football championship will be on the line for the first time ever on the turf of Bobcat Stadium/Sim Cooley Field this weekend.

The 4th-ranked Jones College Bobcats will host No. 1 East Mississippi at 2 p.m. Saturday for the state championship. The game will air onwww.jcjc.tvand the Jones College Facebook Live page with Mark Easley and Luke Johnson on the call.

The last time Jones hosted a state championship game was in 2002 in the final game played at Bush-Young Stadium, which was located in the center of campus where Jones Hall is now. The Bobcats dropped a 7-0 decision to Holmes in that contest.

Bobcat head coach Steve Buckley said everyone knows what is at stake on Saturday.

“We are not going to disguise the magnitude of this game,” he said Monday morning. “It is a big game for everybody involved. Anytime you are playing for a championship there is something extra on the line. It’s a tribute to our kids being such a young football team with 41 freshmen that we have matured to the point where we have put ourselves in position to play for a championship.”

The Bobcats enter the game at 9-1, riding an eight-game winning streak.

The Lions are 10-0 and have been rated No. 1 in the nation since the NJCAA preseason poll was released in August.

Jones played EMCC twice last season and lost both times.

In the 2017 season opener, Jones led the Lions 28-14 in the third quarter and had ball possession, but ended up losing, 47-34.

The Bobcats hosted the Lions in the first round of the playoffs last year and dropped a 24-20 decision. In that game, Jones turned the ball over on downs four times in EMCC territory, lost a fumble at the Lion 20 and missed a 42-yard field goal.

Even though there are several different players on both teams, Buckley said the teams are familiar with each other.

“I told the kids last night that we have put ourselves in position for this,” he said. “This is the third time we’ve played them in two years. They are familiar with us and we are familiar with them. We are not going to change what we do and they are not going to change what they do. The only thing both teams will change this week will be signals and we’ve already started working on that.

“They have been the number one team in the country for a year now. They have won a bunch over the last several years. They are very well-respected on the football field.”

Under head coach Buddy Stephens, the Lions have won MACJC championships in 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017 and they have won national championships in 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2017.

Jones averages 35.9 points per game on offense and allows 19.9 points per game on defense. East Mississippi averages 43.1 points per game and allows only 11.1 points per game.

Jones is led by redshirt freshman quarterback Stetson Bennett (Blackshear, Georgia), who has completed 120-of-209 passes for 1,492 yards, 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He has also rushed for 152 yards.

Freshman running back Kalyn Grandberry (Memphis, Tennessee) has rushed 208 times for 1,192 yards and nine touchdowns. Grandberry is fifth in the nation in rushing yards and sixth in rushing yards per game (119.2).

Freshman receiver Immanuel Jones (Amory) leads the team in receptions with 40, while freshman receiver Gabe Douglas (Denton, Texas) has six receiving touchdowns.

On defense, freshman linebacker Nick Anderson (Vicksburg) leads the team in tackles with 61. Redshirt freshman end Chei Hill (Miami, Florida) has 50 tackles, 32 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. He leads the nation in TFLs and is tied for eighth in sacks.

Freshman linebacker Daylen Gill (Louisville) and sophomore safety Fred Peters (Columbia) each have 46 tackles and Gill has 16 TFLs. Sophomore safety Jonathan Haynes (Ray Brooks) has 37 tackles and sophomore tackle DaShawn Crawford (Bay Springs) has 32 tackles and 12 ½ TFLs.

The Lions are led on offense by quarterback Messiah deWeaver, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound sophomore transfer from Michigan State University. deWeaver has completed 158-of-226 passes for 1,603 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.

Their top running back is Deon McIntosh, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound sophomore transfer from Notre Dame. He has carried 165 times for 967 yards and 16 scores.

Dontario Drummond, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound sophomore from Laurel, and Kalem Reddix, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound sophomore from Biloxi, are EMCC’s top receivers. Drummond has 46 catches for 686 yards and nine touchdowns. Reddix has 48 receptions for 435 yards and three scores.

“They are very balanced on offense with a lot of size and a lot of speed,” Buckley said. “They do a very good job on offense.”

EMCC’s top performers on defense include linebacker Fred Hervey, a 5-foot-11, 215-pound freshman from Charleston, who leads the team in tackles with 78. He also has four sacks. Tackle Everitt Cunningham, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound sophomore from West Point, has 46 tackles and 13 sacks. Tackle Eriq Kitchens, a 6-foot-2, 250-pound sophomore from South Panola, has 48 tackles and six sacks. Back JaQuez Akins, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound sophomore from Starkville, has three interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns.

“Defensively, they are big up front and active in the secondary,” Buckley said. “They have really, really good corners. It will be a great challenge for us, but that’s why they play the game.”

Last week, Jones beat No. 5 Northwest 36-34 in a semifinal game, while EMCC knocked off No. 16 Copiah-Lincoln, 31-7.

The Bobcats received a solid performance from Bennett in the win over the Rangers. He was 19-of-27 through the air for 314 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 65 yards and was named the MACJC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance.

Buckley was pleased with the Jones’ offense, which piled up 450 yards.

“I thought offensively it was one of our better games,” he said. “There were two things we had to do going into that game. Number one, we had to throw the ball effectively and number two, the quarterback had to run the ball when nothing was there. To me, that was key to the game.

“Northwest plays a ‘Bear’ defense and it’s tough sledding trying to run the football against them. We knew that going in. I thought we had a great game plan and we moved the ball effectively.

“I thought Stet played his best football game since he’s been here. The receivers caught the ball well.”

On defense, Jones allowed 397 yards. Northwest ran 88 plays from scrimmage, while Jones had only 65.

Buckley said the Bobcats did well on defense, but stayed on the field too long.

“They had two drives. They had a 19-play drive and a 13-play drive and they were both aided by penalties,” he said. “We played too many snaps defensively. We played a whole extra quarter defensively and that’s a tribute to Northwest keeping the chains moving. But at the same time, we had some penalties and kept their possessions alive.

“I thought we played well on defense. Northwest is a very balanced offense. They can run it and they can throw it. They have striking power, but I thought we held up very well. It’s just those two drives put us into a huge numbers disadvantage, especially coming into this week. It’s critical that we get some rest and recovery this week and get back fresh.”

A major factor in last week’s victory was special teams play.

Jones placekicker Cristofer Thompson (Adams County Christian School) was 3-for-3 on field goals, including a 50-yarder, and was 3-for-3 on extra points. He was named MACJC Special Teams Player of the Week.

Buckley credited holder Davis Harrison (Lamar School) and longsnapper Dakota Masters (Seminary) with sound execution on the placekicks.

“Cris was cool, calm and collected all day,” he said. “Everybody was thinking, ‘Should we try it?’ on the long field goal, but I felt good about it. He had the wind behind him and Cris was right down the middle with it. Great job by Davis and Dakota, too. They don’t get any credit, but Cris came up big for us.”

The Rangers were 0-for-2 on field goals.

Other aspects of the kicking game were also crucial.

“I think we did a great job last week in the kicking game,” Buckley said. “I did not want to lose it in the kicking game. I thought we did a great job with kickoff returns. We had our best field position all year with kickoff returns and our kickoff coverage was very sound.”

But Northwest did recover an onside kick in the game’s final minute that almost proved to be disastrous.

The Rangers got the onside kick at their own 47-yard line and drove to the Jones’ 37, but turned the ball over on downs after four straight incomplete passes.

“The most disappointing thing to me was in the game was the onside kick,” Buckley said. “We had a busted assignment on the onside kick and it cost us. We could have secured the game at that point, but we had to play some more plays on defense. We just can’t do that. You can’t miss an assignment in a crucial situation like that.”

Jones also had four turnovers and the Rangers did not turn the ball over.

But the Bobcats were able to overcome that.

Now, it’s time for all of the focus to be on East Mississippi.

Buckley said the plan is the same as it each week for Jones.

“We need to stay in front of the chains and don’t turn it over on offense,” he said. “We need to do what we do on defense and get them on the ground. And we just need to be consistent and don’t mess it up on special teams.”

Postseason play is very much in the mix for the Bobcats, regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s game.

Official word will come early next week.