PERKINSTON — No. 1 Mississippi Gulf Coast heads into the NJCAA Football Championship showdown against No. 2 Lackawanna thanks in large part to a great defense.
The Bulldogs' defense, known as The Regulators, ranks fourth in the NJCAA in scoring defense (12.3 points per game) and second in total defense (195.5 yards per game). The coaching staff could take credit for schemes and game plans, but the main reason is pretty clear.
"There's just a lot of really good football players on that side," Gulf Coast coach Jack Wright said. "We have a lot of instinctive players that have some natural quickness. We have a lot of guys who have a nose for the football over there."
Gulf Coast has allowed 130.3 yards per game rushing, third-best in the country, and 65.3 yards passing, fourth-best. That dominance has helped the Bulldogs outscore their opponents in 34 of 44 quarters. They didn't allow a point in the first quarter until the ninth game, which was the first time the team trailed all season. Opponents have outscored MGCCC in just three quarters.
The defensive line has been a handful for opponents all season, led by defensive end Jamie Sheriff (So., Terry/Terry). He has 30 tackles, 20 assists and a team-high eight sacks. Fellow end Tre Lawson (So., North Augusta/North Augusta S.C.) has five sacks among 41 total tackles, and Brian Merritt (Fr., Colquitt County/Moultrie Ga.) is a force in the middle of the line with 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
"They're difficult to block for any extended period," Wright said. "They're a very active group. They're very sound. They do their job and don't stay blocked long."
The leading tackles man the next level of the defense. Mike Smith (Fr., Ridgeland/Flora) had 97 total tackles to lead the team, with Navonteque Strong (Fr., Scott Central/Forest) just one behind. Strong has 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.
"The linebackers are excellent football players," Wright said. "They're great tacklers. When they make contact, they're very physical. They're both very much students of the game. They're just very instinctual players."
The back end is populated by a crew known for its ball skills. Jackie Matthews (So., Pinson Valley/Pinson Ala.) leads the team with five interceptions from his safety position and has 49 total tackles. Malik Jones (Fr., Grenada/Grenada) had 66 total tackles and a nose for the ball. He's got an interception, three fumble recoveries and a forced fumble.
T.J. Ficklin (So., Brandon/Pelahatchie) and Terrance Newell (So., Clinton/Clinton) play the corners.
"They have the ability to track the ball and make plays late in the route," Wright said. "That's one thing that's made very good this year, especially on deep balls, being able to make plays on the ball as it nears the receiver."
Fans watching the game Thursday from Pittsburg, Kan., will see a lot of players being used at all three levels. Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.
"We have a lot of depth at all those spots," Wright said. "There's a lot of people who have played a lot of different spots. All those guys can get in there and play a lot of different positions and do similar things."
For more information on MGCCC's 10 intercollegiate athletic teams, follow @MGCCCBulldogs on Twitter and MGCCCBulldogs on Facebook, and go to mgcccbulldogs.com.
Sports Information Director
Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College