Booneville, Miss. - An opportunistic Northeast Mississippi Community College football team capitalized in several crucial situations to open the 2016 campaign in the win column.
The Tigers captured a thrilling 17-14 victory over Pearl River Community College to conclude a highly successful Military Appreciation Night on Thursday, September 1 at Tiger Stadium.
"I'm just excited for the kids," said Northeast head coach Greg Davis. "They believed in it and they did a great job. We were all nervous about it because you don't know what to anticipate. But everybody really pulled together and this is awesome."
Tremendous performances on special teams was a key factor for the Tigers, especially in the second half when the Wildcats (0-1) seemingly had a grasp on the momentum.
Pearl River grabbed a 14-10 advantage at the 2:18 mark of the third quarter after Joseph Williams returned an interception 59 yards for a touchdown. The Wildcats then seemingly forced Northeast into a three-and-out situation on its ensuing possession.
But Toreano Miner's punt was muffed by Pearl River and a band of five Tigers pounced onto the pigskin. Zeke Liggins came out of the pile with the ball to give Northeast a second chance deep in enemy territory at the 17-yard line.
"I was very excited because we were down and we needed it very bad," Liggins said. "I knew I could do it so I went out there and tried my best. I did it for the team and not for myself."
"I really just went back to practice. We run that play over and over," said Hawkins. "The punt team gave us good field position for the offense to execute. I just thank God for the ability to do what I do."
The Wildcats attempted to retake the lead late in the fourth with a lengthy drive that brought them within 10 yards of a touchdown. But Northeast made a goal line stand from that point to secure the triumph.
Blake McClain forced a fumble on third down that was nearly recovered by Dee McNeal. However, Tyrin Arceneaux fell on the ball just before McNeal reached it to give Pearl River a chance at a field goal that would have tied the contest.
Cameron Bolton could not handle the snap on the subsequent three-point attempt. He picked up the ball and completed a pass to Will Inlow, but the Tigers' Johnathon Edwards squarely tackled him at the 11-yard line immediately after the catch to result in a turnover on downs.
"Johnathon just did his job and came up and made a huge play," Davis said. "But hats off to everybody. We kept playing and worked as a team. I couldn't be more pleased. It was a great game."
Northeast scored on its inaugural possession of the season. Austin Holloway's 30-yard field goal capped a 12-play, 64-yard drive to push the Tigers ahead 3-0 halfway through the first period.
The score stayed frozen at 3-0 through halftime. Darious Leggett's five-yard scamper into the end zone got the Wildcats on the board for the first time early in the third.
Cunningham directed Northeast's immediate response with nice first down tosses to Dillon Helm, Hawkins and Miner. Kenzie Phillips later accounted for the initial touchdown of the year for the Tigers with a one-yard run with 5:43 remaining in the quarter.
Northeast compiled 326 yards of offense with 178 of those coming on the ground. Dorian Banks toted the load for the Tigers with a team-high 12 rushes for 48 yards while five others registered at least one carry as well.
Cunningham was solid during his inaugural start behind center with 148 yards on 17 completions. He spread the wealth to seven receivers, including Hawkins who topped Northeast with five catches and 49 yards.
It was the first time that the Tigers caused multiple turnovers in a game since October 23, 2014 against Holmes Community College. Josh Thurman added an interception to go with Liggins' fumble recovery.
Brenden Williams paced the defense with an incredible 14 tackles during his initial contest in a Northeast uniform. Sophomores Takari Brooks, Demarcus Rogers and Brandon Tillman all added nine tackles apiece as well.
It is just the second time in program history for the Tigers to defeat Pearl River in consecutive matchups. The only other instance was from 1988-89 under former headman Johnny Plummer.
The 14 points that Pearl River recorded is tied for its fourth lowest offensive output ever against the Tigers. The lowest total was six points in a Northeast victory during the 2002 season.
It is also the first season opening win for the Tigers since 2011. Northeast had battled opponents that were ranked in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) poll to begin the last four campaigns.
The Tigers begin a pivotal three-game road stretch on Thursday, September 8 versus East Central Community College. Kickoff between Northeast and the Warriors (0-1) is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Bailey Stadium in Decatur.