Booneville, Miss. – The Northeast Mississippi Community College football program proved that it was worthy of its newfound national ranking with a nice victory over its archrival.
Northeast held Itawamba Community College scoreless for three consecutive quarters to start the game and went on to claim a 30-12 win on Thursday, October 6 at Tiger Stadium.
"I'm kind of speechless really," said Northeast head coach Greg Davis. "At the end of the day, the kids played their tail off. We've got a group of guys that believe in each other. Really a positive, positive football game."
The Tigers, who are ranked No. 18 in the latest National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) poll, held an Indian offense that was third in the country in yards per game to season-lows in points and total yards at 370.
Northeast's defense and special teams units combined to force Itawamba into three turnovers. The Tigers have now accounted for multiple takeaways in all but one contest this year.
"They played just as good as you could play," Davis said. "It was obviously a group effort no doubt. We're really pleased and happy with them. They really showed up and played."
The Indians' first miscue helped Northeast get onto the scoreboard midway through the opening period. Damarius Ray fell upon a muffed punt by Itawamba to give the Tigers the pigskin once again deep in enemy territory.
Austin Holloway connected on a 26-yard field goal moments later to give Northeast (5-1, 2-1) an early 3-0 advantage. It was the fourth made three-pointer of the campaign for Holloway.
"I was just trying to do my job and get the ball," said Ray. "It was a great feeling because I continue to play my heart out. That raises my confidence level. I have to believe in myself every snap."
The Tigers extended the lead on their ensuing possession. Kenzie Phillips capped a quick six-play drive with a 20-yard dash down the visiting sideline and into the end zone to push Northeast ahead 10-0.
Quarterback Mason Cunningham increased the Tigers' advantage on the first play of the second period. He faked a handoff and raced 29 yards untouched for a touchdown to make the score 17-0 in favor of Northeast.
Cunningham directed perhaps his most impressive drive of the evening after the Indians (3-3, 0-3) failed to convert on a critical fourth down attempt with 10:41 remaining before the intermission.
Cunningham used his legs once again and crossed the goal line on a 25-yard keeper to lift the Tigers to a 24-0 halftime lead. It was the team-high sixth rushing touchdown of his freshman season.
Northeast's defense was phenomenal after the break and held Itawamba to just three yards in the third quarter. Blake McClain had a sack while Brenden Williams recorded a tackle for loss as well in that stretch.
Cunningham concluded the scoring for the hosts with an eight-yard strike to Cameron Montgomery that allowed the Tigers to take a 30-0 advantage into the final period of competition.
The Indians avoided the shutout in the fourth with a pair of touchdown tosses from Peyton Bender to Dorian Gaston. Northeast eventually sealed the triumph after Brandon Tillman recovered a fumble with 3:32 left on the clock.
Cunningham had 200 yards on the dot through the air on 22 completions with zero interceptions to guide the Tigers. He was also highly effective on the ground with eight carries for 71 yards.
"I was excited to get off to a fast start," Cunningham said. "It was nice to get a clean game under my belt. I'm proud of the whole offensive unit. I'm glad to see the improvement, but we can't get complacent."
Phillips was sensational alongside Cunningham in Northeast's backfield. He posted a career-best 17 rushes and a game-high 85 yards to go with his third touchdown of the campaign.
"Our o-line stepped up so I saw some holes and I just hit them," said Phillips. "Everybody here gets along just fine. We look at each other as brothers so we've got a great connection."
Montgomery was the top receiver for the Tigers with career-bests of seven catches and 62 yards. Hawkins added to his incredible year with five receptions for 58 yards as well.
Williams notched a team-high eight tackles while Takari Brooks and Peyton McMahon tallied seven stops apiece. Johnathon Edwards also had a takeaway after grabbing a loose fumble on an Itawamba kickoff return in the third.
Northeast had more than a seven minute edge in time of possession. The Indians were limited to a 21 percent success rate on third downs and were also just one of five on fourth down chances.
It was the biggest margin of victory for the Tigers in this rivalry series since capturing a 41-0 decision on September 29, 2005. The win allowed Northeast to match its best start to a season since 2011.
The Tigers are back on the road next week with a trip to Mississippi Delta Community College (1-5, 0-3). Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Jim Randall Stadium in Moorhead.