PERKINSTON — No. 1 Mississippi Gulf Coast blew open a close game at halftime and knocked out two-time defending national champion East Mississippi 31-7 Saturday night at A.L. May Memorial Stadium.
The South Division-champion Bulldogs (10-0) will head to Senatobia next Saturday looking to win their first MACJC championship since 2010.
"It was a well-executed plan," Gulf Coast coach Jack Wright said. "You have to the kids a lot of credit for buying into the gameplan this week on both side of the ball. We knew exactly how we wanted to defend them, we knew exactly how we wanted to attack them, and the kids had a great week of practice. What you saw tonight was the result of a great week."
No. 13 East Mississippi, which had won the last three MACJC championships and five of the last eight NJCAA titles, finishes the year 6-4.
The Lions scored the game's first points when Zach Patterson returned a punt 71 yards for a 7-0 lead.
Gulf Coast promptly put together a 12-play, 65-yard touchdown drive, punctuated by a 5-yard touchdown run by Austin Bolton (So., Poplarville/Poplarville) with 3:20 left in the first period.
Caden Davis (Fr., Pearl/Pearl) nailed a 23-yard field goal early in the second period to give Gulf Coast a lead it would never relinquish.
It did so because The Regulators, the Gulf Coast defense, shut out the East Mississippi offense for 60 minutes. The Bulldogs allowed only 250 total yards to the fourth-ranked defense in the country, just more than half what the Lions were used to piling up.
EMCC was averaging 316.6 yards per game in the air, second-best in the country, but manage only 196 against the Bulldogs. Linebacker Navonteque Strong (Fr., Scott Central/Forest) had an interception during a monster game, as did defensive back T.J. Ficklin (So., Brandon/Pelahatchie). The Bulldogs also recovered two fumbles and didn't turn the ball over.
"You cannot say enough about our defense," Wright said. "Everything we thought East Mississippi was going to bring at us — up-tempo, taking shots at us deep, throwing screens, lining up fast — they did that. Our kids were prepared. They were dialed in all week in practice. They did what we asked them to do in the gameplan. There were times when it turned into a physical battle in the run game and sometimes on the perimeter, and most of the time we won those."
Marquise Bridges (So., Petal/Brookhaven) put his stamp on the game on the first drive of the second half. He had a 25-yard reception to get the drive rolling, then ended it with a 14-yard touchdown reception to make it 17-7. He broke a couple of tackles in the red zone, an area the Bulldogs had been struggling Saturday.
He would finish with nine catches for 130 yards.
"What other night would you want to have a career night against other than the national champions?" Wright said. "It was a great night, but the coaches are not surprised. He makes those plays every day in practice."
Shaun Anderson (So., Picayune/Picayune) was the go-to guy on the next Gulf Coast drive, running for 34 of the drive's 59 yards. He finished the seven-play drive with a 2-yards score.
"It was just Shaun's turn tonight," Wright said. "We've seen it all year. It's a great group (of running backs). We started slow a couple times in the run game, and then somebody comes off the bench and gives us a spark in the run game. It's been different people."
Bolton scored the last points of the game with his second touchdown midway through the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach. A 15-play, 61-yard drive ended with a 2-yard plunge.
Gulf Coast will celebrate the win briefly before turning its attention to No. 10 Northwest. The North Division champs knocked out No. 7 Jones 24-17 in Senatobia to stage a showdown next week.
"I think our kids will be focused," Wright said. "The one point we're going to make all week is to just prepare and give our best. Let's start with our film study, have a great week in the classroom, let's have a great week in the weight room, the walkthroughs, all the little things we do to get ready for a game. Let's do that the best we've done all year, and hopefully that pays off for us next week."
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