Can two teams who have never before played against each other be considered rivals?
Thursday’s 7 p.m. kickoff of the NJCAA Championship game at Pittsburg State University’s Carnie Smith Stadium will be the first time Garden City Community College and East Mississippi teams will share the gridiron.
But the two teams seemingly have been on a collision course for three years, with the Broncbusters winning the national championship in 2016 and the Lions in 2017. The two teams are a combined 62-6 the last three seasons.
“It’s the old adage, it’s the two biggest bullies on the block right now,” East Mississippi head coach Buddy Stephens said of the matchup that is the first NJCAA title game to be played at a neutral field, and the first to be broadcast on national TV (CBS Sports Network).
The top-ranked Lions (11-0) have gone wire-to-wire as the No. 1-ranked team in the country, while the Busters (10-0) have been No. 2 since Oct. 9.
So while both coaches agree it’s not a rivalry in the classic sense of the word, Thursday’s titanic matchup is one that’s been on the horizon of junior college football’s landscape.
“We’re excited about the opportunity for what should be a great heavyweight fight,” said GCCC head coach Jeff Sims.
East Mississippi is as heavyweight as they come in the junior college ranks, winning four national titles since 2011, all under Stephens. And it’s not been the polite kind of domination. As featured in Netflix’s hit docuseries, “Last Chance U,” the Mississippi conference enacted what’s colloquially known as the “Buddy Rule,” which is a mercy rule that allows a running clock in the second halves of blowout games.
That’s the regularity with which the Lions have been mauling opponents, and 2018 is no exception. East Mississippi outscored its opponents 456-125 this season, winning nine times by at least three touchdowns. The only two games decided by a single score came in a 24-21 win at East Central and a 19-14 win at Jones in the state championship game on Nov. 10.
But the win over East Central came when the Lions lost their starting quarterback, Vijay Miller, for the rest of the season due to injury. In the four games Miller started and completed, the Lions scored 50-plus points.
Former four-star QB Messiah deWeaver has not been a bad backup plan at signal caller, leading the Lions to 34, 56 and 47 points in his first three full games at the helm, helping guide East Mississippi’s fifth-best NJCAA scoring offense (41.5 points per game).
“They’re not ranked No. 1 for no reason,” GCCC sophomore linebacker Dillon Williams said. “They’ve got a lot of freak athletes, and they play really, really hard, too. We’re definitely going to have to play our best.”
One of those freak athletes is receiver Dontario Drummond, who has 818 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. In the backfield, Deon McIntosh has 1,081 rushing yards and 17 scores.
Ten other Lions have scored at least one touchdown.
Garden City’s defense is led by Williams, who has racked up 85 tackles, 17 for loss, and five sacks. Fellow linebacker Heston Lameta has 60 tackles, 12 for loss, and 3.5 sacks.
The Busters’ offense lacks the explosive balance of the Lions, but has nonetheless been dominant. They are outscoring opponents 361-174, winning six games by two or more touchdowns. Only two games were decided by a field goal or less — wins over currently No. 3-ranked Iowa Western (16-13) and No. 13 Hutchinson (24-21).
“This will be our fifth national championship game that I’ve had here, and I had two more at Pearl River,” Stephens said. “This Garden City team is probably the best team we’ve faced in those seven championships.”
The Busters are motored by their prolific rushing offense, racking up an NJCAA-best 307.6 yards per game on the ground. The combination of the two-headed monster of Dedrick Mills (a Nebraska commit) and Charles West in the backfield and an enormous offensive line (averaging 6-foot-5, 310 pounds) has not been stopped by many defenses this year.
They rushed for 150-plus yards in every game and were held to less than 200 just three times.
“They’re going to do what they do, and they’re going to do it better than how you do it,” Stephens said of the Busters’ run game.
It’s been so successful, the Busters have only thrown the ball 128 times total this season, just less than 13 times per game.
East Mississippi’s run defense — led by freshman linebacker Fred Hervey (86 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 4 sacks) — is the NJCAA’s ninth best, allowing just 88.5 yards per game. It can perhaps force the Busters to go to the air a little more than they are used to.
However, GCCC quarterback David Moore — a University of Memphis transfer — is quite capable of shouldering the load, according to Stephens.
“If they ever need to throw it, gosh that quarterback is really good at it,” Stephens said.
Moore led the game-winning touchdown drive — and threw the winning touchdown pass — against Hutchinson in what was a tilt between a pair of top-five teams at the time, and what ultimately decided the KJCCC championship.
That game was perhaps the biggest game in the Jayhawk Conference in several years, and perhaps the biggest for the Garden City program since the 2016 NJCAA title.
Thursday’s game vs. East Mississippi is a return to the pinnacle, though. It does not just carry the weight of crowning this year’s champion. It’s perhaps the deciding factor in which team is the biggest bully on the block the last three seasons.
“If you look at junior college football the last three years, East Mississippi and Garden City have been the two best teams in the country,” Sims said. “…they’re the champs, and we’re the No. 1 contender.”
GCCC’s short-yardage package vs. EMCC’s defense
The Busters faced fourth-and-2 in Hutchinson territory late in the Nov. 3 game at Gowans Stadium. If they didn’t convert, the host Blue Dragons would run out the clock to seal the victory, and deny the Busters a KJCCC championship and an NJCAA championship bid.
Garden City went to the short-yardage package it had several times before — a package that includes linebacker Dillon Williams and a pair of defensive linemen to provide as much girth as possible up front.
The Busters easily picked up the first down, and on the next play threw the game-winning touchdown pass.
With an offense built heavily on the running game, the Busters find themselves in third- and fourth-and-short situations several times a game.
That “big” package has come through each time, but if East Mississippi is able to stop it just once, the game could be swung in the Lions’ favor.
Sims’ last rodeo
GCCC’s Jeff Sims is coaching his final game for the Busters, having accepted the head coaching position at the Missouri Southern State University in early November.
He is 32-12 in four seasons at GCCC, with three bowl games and the one national title.