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Nationally ranked Lions and Tigers go head to head Saturday

October 6, 2011

East Mississippi head football coach Buddy Stephens says he isn’t surprised with how his Lions have started the 2011 football season.
After all, they’re ranked No. 3 in the country, undefeated at 5-0 and have one of the most explosive offenses in the nation.

Their opponents this week, Northeast Mississippi, were relatively quiet despite winning four in a row until they defeated then No. 10 Northwest on the road 34-28. One team will be undefeated no longer. Tigers head coach Ricky Smither says he’s a little stunned with how his team has quickly turned some heads this season.

“I knew we had a chance at being pretty good,” he said. “We’ve had some kids that matured and that’s really helped out a bunch. I’m more surprised with the maturity of my younger guys than anything else.”

The Tigers have had to rely on a lot of their signing class this season especially on the offensive line and at linebacker. However, despite a young group filling in on key positions, Northeast have been able to win despite not having some eye popping numbers.

Quarterback Parks Frazier has just 551 passing yards on the season to compliment 11 touchdowns and just four interceptions while running back Michael Poole has rushed for a team-high 326 yards. Collectively the Tigers have outscored their opponents 143-67 with most of the damage coming in the first half. It’s helped the Tigers earn a national ranking coming into Saturday’s 3 p.m ball game in Booneville at No. 12.

The match up not only has divisional implications, but it also features several players from West Point including the Tigers JaMarius Tallie and Michael Bush and EMCC’s Justin Cox and Jeremy Cannon.

Northwest was the first ranked opponent the Tigers have played all season. The Lions, Smither says are on a whole different level.

“Buddy has a great team over there in Scooba,” he said. “There’s a lot of talent on that football team. I expect for the level of play to rise.”

The Lions this season have lived up to their expectations over the last few years since winning the state title in 2009. Stephens knows he has a good football team that could make another run.

“We recruited a very good class,” he said. “I was very happy with the guys we brought in from our district and put together. We strive for that every year and this is the start we expect every year. We’ve got good athletes and we’ve executed well in some different situations, well enough to win some ball games.”

The road to the perfect start for the Lions wasn’t exactly paved in marble. Three of the first five opponents were at one time ranked in the NJCAA Top 20 Poll including Northwest in week three who at the time was No.4 along with Hinds and Mississippi Gulf Coast. EMCC won those games by a combined nine points. Since then they’ve had more convincing wins over Itawamba and Coahoma.

“That’s the brand of ball you get here in Mississippi juco,” Stephens said. “At least right now. I don’t know if that brand of ball will be same after this year.”

The biggest part of their success has rested on the shoulders, rather the arm of freshman quarterback Bo Wallace who leads the nation in passing yards with 1,807 and his 68.1 completion percentage is best among top 20 ranked teams in the country. With 17 touchdowns and six interceptions, the Arkansas State transfer and twice MACJC Player of the Week, averages a little over 361-yards per game. All of his 143 completions have gone to 13 different receivers which makes the Lions an
even tougher opponent to scout.

The Lions don’t rely just on the passing game; they can run the ball too led by Rodriguez Moore with 477 total rushing yards and a team-high three touchdowns. EMCC averages 152 yards on the ground.

Arguably the Lions biggest threat on either side of the football and special teams is Rodney Davis. Already earning MACJC and National Player of the Week honors, Davis had his best game against Northwest with 322 all-purpose yards including a 100-yard touchdown return on a missed
field goal.

It’s safe to say the Tigers will have their hands full defensively, however so far it looks as though they can hold their own in stopping the run or the pass.

This season Northeast have forced five fumbles on defense and sacked opposing quarterbacks seven times. The biggest number by far is interceptions, 13 on the season including three against Northwest. They are led in the secondary by Frankie Lee with five.

Smither gives all the credit to defensive coordinator Jeff Carter and Travis Macon.

“They’re hitting up that side of the ball and doing a tremendous job,” he said. “The kids believe what they’re doing and we got some kids over there that love to run and make contact with folks. When you have a good scheme together and you have kids that can execute, of course you’re going to be successful.”

The Lions defense is equally impressive giving up just 168 and 166-yards per game in the air and on the ground respectively thanks in part to a pair of West Point natives Cox and Cannon who have a combined 49 tackles including three interceptions all by Cox. South Carolina native and Division I prospect Denico Autry leads the team with 42 tackles along with two sacks.

Both coaches agree that playing on a Saturday is an advantage as far as preparation and game planning, but it’s going to be difficult to keep the players focused for one more day.

Stephens knows the newly ranked Tigers won’t be as easy as their numbers indicate, either way he just wants to keep the penalties down and the turnovers at zero.

“They’re defense I think is one of the best in the league,” he said. “I think they do a good job, I’m impressed with how hard their kids play. It’s going to be a really tough, hard hitting game this weekend.”

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