BOONEVILLE – Forgive Ricky Smither if he gets a little emotional. After all, he just caught a feeling he has been chasing for two years.
Northeast Mississippi’s second-year head coach fought back tears and hugged player after player here Thursday night, moments after his Tigers finished a 28-21 win over community college rival Itawamba.
His team lost all nine of its games on the field last year, getting credit for one victory when an opposing team used an ineligible player.
The Tigers were 0-2 heading into Thursday’s game.
“This is unreal,” Smither said. “These kids have worked so hard and sacrificed so much. To come out here and beat a team like Itawamba, it’s unbelievable.”
Smither has his defense – and an early offensive onslaught – to thank for his first victory at Northeast. The Tigers’ defensive unit forced five turnovers and scored three touchdowns, while limiting the Indians to just 52 first half yards.
“That is a good, well-coached defense over there,” ICC head coach Jeff Terrill said. “They caused us some problems. We made too many mistakes on offense tonight, but their defense was a part of that.”
Northeast’s last win was against Holmes in late 2007.
For a while, it looked as if the Northeast offense would dominate the action, as the Tigers kept the ball for nearly 12 minutes in the first quarter and rolled up 144 yards of offense, while the Indians managed just five first-quarter yards and no first downs.
Northeast running back Jamorris Ricks put the Tigers in the scoring column first, capping a 14-play, 96-yard drive with a 1-yard scoring plunge.
“Our offense really came out and controlled the early part of the game,” Smither said. “The running game helped us set the tone there in the first quarter.”
Northeast’s defense would handle tone-setting duties the rest of the way.
Freshman defensive tackle Ky’Vari Bolden recovered a fumble in the end zone with 13 minutes, 22 seconds left in the second quarter, giving Northeast its first defensive score of the year. Tyler Turner added both extra points as Northeast carried a 14-0 lead into halftime.
That lead would grow to 21-0 midway through the third, when LaDarrius Madded picked off ICC QB Bret Jefcoat and raced 62 yards for a touchdown.
Jefcoat, third in the state in passing entering the game, struggled against Northeast, completing just 10 passes for 103 yards and two interceptions. Jefcoat had one TD pass, a 26-yard strike to wideout Marti Shelby.
“Our defensive coaches, they do such a great job day in and day out,” Smither said. “They did a great job this week getting us prepared to play a good offensive football team tonight.”
Northeast would tack on one more defensive score, a 60-yard interception return by Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., native John Ware.
“I was hurting all night, but I wasn’t gonna come out of this game. It means too much,” Ware said. “When I caught the ball, it hurt running down the field, but I knew I had to get there.”
Ware’s score capped the scoring for Northeast, setting the stage for near-comeback by the Indians.
Backup quarterback Tromarcus Toney engineered a pair of late scoring drives to get the Indians within striking distance. Toney found DeMarcus Watts from 25 yards out with 6:28 left, and Amory sophomore Evan Lackey scored on a 4-yard run with 2:52 remaining. After Jefcoat’s PAT, the Indians trailed by just seven points for the first time all night.
The Indians would get the ball back one last time in the closing seconds, but Toney’s last-second heave fell to the turf, giving Smither his first win and sending the Tigers into a raucous celebration.
“This is why you do all those two-a-days and lift all those weights,” Smither said. “To watch everything we’ve done pay off tonight, it means the world.”
For Terrill and the Indians, the late comeback was little consolation after their second straight loss.
“You never like to lose, but there is something to say for the fact that our kids never quit and never stopped fighting,” he said. “We just have to come back out here Monday and get this thing turned around.”
ICC, now 1-2 overall and 0-1 in MACJC North Division play, will return home next week to host Northwest, while Northeast (1-2, 1-0) visits Mississippi Delta.
Brandon Walker/NEMS Daily Journal