PITTSBURG, Kan. (WTVA/NJCAA) – The 2018 NJCAA eTeamSponsor Football National Championship game came down to a defensive struggle, but it was No. 1 East Mississippi who prevailed with a 10-9 victory over No. 2 Garden City on Thursday night at Carnie Smith Stadium on the campus of Pittsburg State University.
The title is the fifth in program history for the Lions.
In the first-ever NJCAA national championship event on live national television, East Mississippi used a second quarter fumble recovery returned for a touchdown by Everitt Cunningham to pull away from Garden City. The lone touchdown for the Lions made the difference as the East Mississippi defense stopped a fourth quarter two-point conversion attempt by the Broncbusters to seal the victory.
Cunningham’s performance on the defensive front led to top honors as the sophomore was tabbed the eTeamSponsor Most Valuable Player. Along with Cunningham’s fumble recovery for a touchdown, the defensive lineman tallied eight tackles, one tackle for a loss, and a second fumble recovery.
East Mississippi head coach Buddy Stephens collected his fifth national championship as the Lions finished a perfect 12-0 on the year. Stephens’ overall record now sits at 110-13 with a winning percentage of .894, the best mark in NJCAA football history.
The title is the second straight for the Lions while the program’s five championships have all come since 2011.
Four of the Lions’ five titles have come with a perfect 12-0 record.
Garden City’s season-long effort of dominating the run game continued as the Broncbusters tallied 255 yards on the ground as Charles West ran for a game-high 114 and Dedrick Mills added 79 on 28 attempts.
Mills provided Garden City’s only touchdown, a one-yard run with 7:49 to play in the fourth quarter.
Josh Smith provided East Mississippi’s only other points with a first quarter field goal from 36 yards.
Aside from Mills’ touchdown run, Garden City’s scoring effort came from Ben Raybon with a 24-yard field goal in the third quarter.
Defensive teammates Untareo Johnson and JaQuez Akins teamed up for the crucial two-point conversion stop late in the fourth quarter that all be clinched the victory for the Lions.
Messiah deWeaver completed 17-29 passes for East Mississippi.
Eriq Kitchen led the champions with a game-high 13 tackles, including 2.5 stops for a loss.
Deric Rucker led the defensive unit for Garden City with 10 total tackles and a forced fumble on the night.