Choctaws no longer being written off

More news about: Mississippi College
Instead of rolling over this season, Mississippi College did something about its 0-3 start. That change began against Hardin-Simmons, the first of three straight conference wins for the Choctaws.
Photo by David Nichols, Mississippi College athletics

Every football team starts the season perfect. And every player, every coach, dreams of keeping it that way.

At Mississippi College, that perfect season dissolved in a loss the first time the Choctaws took the field this fall. 

Three weeks in, Mississippi College was three down and the season looked dismal. 

As the Choctaws rode the bus back from Florida after that last loss to NAIA Webber International, coach Norman Joseph started looking at that list of players who made the trip. He realized he was traveling with about 27 freshmen. Another 24 or so riding that bus were older players, but new to the team. That meant less than one-third of his travel team had played for him before this fall.

The coach, now in his ninth season with the program, decided it was time for some clarification -- about the level of competition, about the way the Choctaws expect to play football.

“Everybody was looking for the big play,” Joseph said. “Who’s going to get the interception. Who’s going to score the touchdown pass. Who’s going to make the long run, get a quarterback sack, get the fumble. ... Not everybody was doing their job, and we just got focused in and started playing the little things, executing the little things.”

Those little things added up to a win in the first conference game, 49-35 over Hardin-Simmons. Then they added up to a second win, 34-30, over Sul Ross State. 

The Choctaws then survived a rocky fourth quarter against Howard Payne this past Saturday to turn that 0-3 start to the season into a 3-0 start to conference play.

Howard Payne (2-4, 0-3) scored twice in the final three minutes of play, cutting what had been a 41-24 lead with 7:19 remaining to a three-point lead with 1:25 to play. 

Joseph said his players had just learned how to win in a couple of come from behind games. Playing with a lead was something new.

“I think that’s part of the learning curve in winning,“ he said. “You play close games and you learn how to win close games. In our case we had to come from behind and win those [two] games. And then we’ve got a lead and you think it would be a comfortable lead. … In our case we’ll take a one point victory every day. If that’s what it is, we’ll take it.” 

Now Joseph is preparing his Choctaws for a homecoming game against a team living the other side of the dream. 

Texas Lutheran University will come to Clinton with a perfect record, a winner of five games already this season with a sixth game against Southwestern Assemblies of God halted for lightning after a lengthy delay.

But both teams currently top their respective conferences.

Joseph doesn’t pinpoint a single player or unit that’s triggered the turnaround. He said there have definitely been players and groups that are showing improvement, but that he thinks all facets of the game have improved dramatically. 

“It hasn’t been one side of the ball, it has been all phases that have really played well,” he said. “Our kicking game is really doing well. ... It’s just been a great team effort. Defensively we’ve been doing some great things. And then offensively we’ve started moving the ball but there’s not one guy getting all the attention. ... It’s been a lot of fun to see our team improve the way they have each week.”

He points to middle linebacker Jake Weddle, who had nine tackles on Saturday, and free safety Austin Gray (eight tackles and a break up) as defensive leaders. Joseph said that his offensive line and quarterback Jonathon Redd have improved every week. 

Numerically speaking, it’s that offense showing the most dramatic difference on the scoreboard: Mississippi scored just 33 points total in its first three games. Redd’s offense has posted 124 points in the last three.  

By comparison, the defense allowed an average 41 points per game in the losses and an average of 34 in the wins. Any time a defense can eliminate an extra touchdown per game, it’s an improvement. But not so dramatic as the offense.

In the win over Howard Payne, the Choctaws ground game was rolling. Mike Johnson rushed for 102 yards on 18 carries. Redd rushed eight times for 40 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed 21 of his 35 passes for 295 yards and a touchdown. 

But the win wasn’t secure until Mississippi recovered an onside kick and held onto the football and the football game for a final set of downs.

The Choctaws have already applied to move out of the Division III ranks to Division II. So while the winner of the American Southwest Conference will receive an automatic bid into the playoffs, Mississippi College was ineligible from the outset and always looking at a 10-game season. 

Which isn’t to say that it wouldn’t be a lot more fun to win those 10 games. 

“To start off as poorly as we had, many folks were just scratching us off, writing us off,“ Joseph said. “Now to get three victories in a row and have some excitement in our program and on campus, it’s really been enjoyable. I don’t even think about those first three games anymore because this is a brand new situation for us.”

Every weekend, every game, teams win and lose. Joseph’s team has done some of both. And maybe the best thing about the Choctaws’ season is that they can offer a little hope to football fans and teams everywhere. Mississippi College is a lot like all of us: Not perfect. But whatever the start, whether it’s to a season, a game, or even just a day, maybe it’s never too late to turn it around and start dreaming of a perfect future.

American Southwest Conference

-- Howard Payne (2-4, 0-3) quarterback Richard Young threw for 319 yards on 26-of-46 passing with two interceptions and two touchdowns in the loss Saturday. Young also rushed for 12 yards and a score on nine attempts.

Colby Mica caught eight passes from Young for 59 yards. Tristian Fuentes had five catches for 103 yards.

Maurice Young had 10 solo tackles for the Yellow Jackets and was credited with 11 total, two for a loss. Young also had an interception.

-- Mary Hardin-Baylor trailed Louisiana College for most of the first quarter Saturday before pulling away to a 45-34 win.

The Wildcats opened a 10-0 lead on a field goal by Adan Olivares and a 69-yard pass from Easton Melancon to Ryan Montague. It was the first time the Crusaders had trailed in a football game since the season opener at Redlands. 

Mary Hardin-Baylor (6-0, 2-0) quarterback Zach Anderson threw for 359 yards and two touchdowns, completing 22 of 31 passes with three interceptions. Marcus Wimby caught five passes for 109 yards and a touchdown.  Eric Nelson had 99 yards on three catches with a touchdown. 

Elijah Hudson rushed for 85 yards and a score on 20 attempts. Anderson also had a rushing touchdown.

Brodrick Cain had 10 solo tackles and was in on 13 total, included 1.5 for loss, for Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Louisiana College got 419 yards and four touchdowns through the air from Melancon, who threw the ball 62 times with 28 completions and was intercepted once.

Montague rushed 23 times for 104 yards. The Wildcats ran 98 offensive plays Saturday to the Crusaders’ 70.

-- Hardin-Simmons (3-3, 2-1) defeated host East Texas Baptist University, 55-17, Saturday.
Josh Christian threw for three touchdowns and 287 yards, going 21 of 40 through the air for Hardin-Simmons. Christian also had a rushing touchdown. Tevin Mitchell rushed for 145 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries.

Darren Seamster was in on  11 tackles, 3.5 for loss including a pair of sacks.

ETBU’s Josh Warbington completed 12 of 19 passes for 111 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Trevor Spear completed 7 of 12 for 61 yards. Toi Glover led the ground game with 70 yards and a touchdown.

Drew Benge was involved in 13 tackles and Devin Mack was in on 10.

Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference

-- Texas Lutheran (5-0, 3-0) continues to ride an undefeated streak after downing Sul Ross State, 41-16.

Brent Peavy passed for four touchdowns and 374 yards, completing 25 of 45 passes without throwing an interception. Lewis Williams had 184 receiving yards on eight catches, including three for touchdowns.

Adam McGuire picked off two passes, returning one 59-yards for a touchdown. Ty Johnson had 10 solo tackles and two assists.

Shane Alexander had 13 tackles for Sul Ross State (0-6), 12 outright. Damian Stevens was involved in 12 tackles, including a sack.

-- Trinity (Texas) (4-3, 0-1) held Southwestern scoreless in a 30-0 nonconference win over the first-year program.

Stephen Smith was 18 of 22 for 262 yards with a pair of touchdowns and an interception. Matthew Kennemar caught seven of those passes for 129 yards and two scores.

Zach Cole, Quinton Thompson and Alex Lee each had nine tackles for Southwestern (0-7).

-- Austin (2-5, 0-1) earned its second win of the season Saturday, downing Southwestern Assemblies of God, 27-17.

Two Kangaroos rushed for over 100 yards Saturday. Byrce Murphy carried 22 times for 122 yards and a touchdown. James Nwankpah had 24 touches for 102 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Noah Jesko completed 11 of 16 passes for 158 yards and touchdown to Kyle Crawford.

Reid Golson was 20 of 39 through the air for 212 yards and two touchdowns against one interception for Southwestern Assemblies (2-5). Golson also led the ground game with 78 yards on 15 attempts.

Southern Athletic Association

-- Centre rallied in the second half at home to down Sewanee, 34-17, Saturday.

Sewanee (2-5,1-2) opened a 10-0 lead and led 17-7 early in the third quarter. But Centre (5-1, 2-0) scored 27 points unanswered and pulled away to win.

Heath Haden rushed for a touchdown and passed for another in the Colonels’ comeback. Harry Meisner also had two rushing touchdowns as Centre won its second in a row after starting the season 3-0.

Haden threw for 270 yards, completing 17 of 32, and was picked off once.

Meisner led Centre’s rushing and receiving. He had 24 carries for 119 yards and three touchdowns, as well as catching four passes for 73 yards. Austin Jones had six catches for 68 yards and the touchdown reception.

Andrew Spitznag and Nick Dietz each had a role in 13 tackles. Devon Freeman was hot off that pace with 12. Freeman had 2.5 tackles for loss, including a sack.

Tigers’ quarterback Curtis Johnson completed 5 of 9 passes for 121 yards with one interception and one touchdown to Charlie Powell. Powell had three total catches for 113 yards to lead the receivers.

Hayden Reece and Dave McKeithen led Sewanee with 8 tackles each.

-- Rhodes {5-1, 2-0) is coming off a bye week as the Lynx prepares to host Centre on Saturday.

Besides matching records, in and out of conference, the two contenders share lone losses to Washington University. The Bears are 4-2 overall, with losses to No. 7 UW-Whitewater and to Coe, which just slipped out of the Top 25 this week. 

Rhodes lost at Washington University on September 14, 10-7. Centre fell to the Bears 31-14 on September 28.

Washington put up similar offensive numbers against both teams. Team passing was 151 yards against Centre and 141 against Rhodes two weeks earlier. Team rushing was 165 against Centre and 171 against Rhodes.

The Lynx played the Bears closer on the scoreboard, but Centre was able to generate more offense overall. Rhodes rushed for 236 yards and passed for 64. The Colonels produced 62 more yards passing and about 28 yards more on the ground.

-- Millsaps (6-0, 2-0) leads the conference and extended its season winning streak to six games after defeating Birmingham-Southern, 28-14, on Saturday.

Mike Barthelemy scored all four Majors’ touchdowns, rushing for 264 yards on 29 carries.

Alex Jackson was in on 11 tackles for Millsaps and Nick Arnold was credited with 10.

Tyson Beacham was successful on 14 of 29 passing attempts for 169 yards and a Birmingham-Southern (3-3, 1-2) touchdown.

Nick Oney was involved in 10 tackles, including two for a loss, and intercepted a pass.

-- After a couple of near misses, Hendrix (3-3, 1-2) got its first SAA win. The first year program defeated fellow first-year team Berry (0-6, 0-3), 30-17 on Saturday.

Tanner Frye was 28 of 39 for 229 yards with 3 touchdowns and an interception, while Dayton Winn led the ground game with 120 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. But the Warriors’ defense really shone, picking off four passes and scoring a safety.

Caleb Shannon had two of those picks, along with eight tackles. Ben Cunningham and Jake Steward grabbed the other two. Cunningham led the defense with 12 tackles.

Winn also caught a touchdown pass. Casey Caton had six catches for 101 yards and a TD.

Matt Farinella was in on 13 tackles for Berry.

Adam Sandin completed 5 of 16 passes for 142 yards in the air and two of the interceptions. 

Chris Lilly caught three passes for 122 yards.

Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Florida. He has 14 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending 10 at The Courier in Findlay, Ohio. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3hoops.com and wrote Around the Great Lakes for D3football.com from 2012-14. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.

2014 columnist: Justin Goldberg
2013 columnist: Andee Djuric
2012 columnist: Kyle Robarts
2008-11 columnist: Jason Bowen

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