BILOXI, Miss – Winning the NJCAA Football Championship Game in dominant fashion, No. 1 Northwest Mississippi defeated No. 2 Rochester (Minn.) 66-13 in Sunday’s Mississippi Bowl.
Completing 23 of 30 passes on the day, freshman quarterback Gardner Minshew led the Northwest Mississippi offensive onslaught. The Brandon, Mississippi, product threw for 421 yards and five touchdowns in the victory, compiling 302 yards and three scores in the first half alone. Minshew’s performance was recognized with the Mississippi Bowl Player of the Year award, an honor that current Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly earned in 2014 while playing at East Mississippi.
Complimenting Minshew’s aerial assault was Rangers sophomore running back Justin Crawford who enjoyed a prolific day on the ground. Scoring a 58-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage, Crawford led all ball carriers with 144 yards rushing on 15 carries – averaging 9.6 yards per attempt. The Columbus, Georgia, native scored two rushing touchdowns and added two receptions for 46 yards in the victory.
Northwest Mississippi’s receiving corps was led by sophomore Jacob McCrary who hauled in seven catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns. Rangers freshman wide receiver Alex Norwood caught two touchdown passes as well, totaling three receptions for 49 yards. Norwood’s fellow freshman wideouts KyKy Austin and Titus Ivory each added a touchdown reception to the performance.
The Rangers accumulated 680 yards offensively – 486 passing and 194 rushing – and were forced into just one punt in the game. Their offensive efficiency was on display all afternoon as they racked up 27 first downs.
Defensively, Northwest Mississippi was led by a game-high seven tackles from sophomore linebacker Malik Hawkins. Freshman defensive lineman Quondarius Qualls tallied two tackles-for-loss, while freshman defensive back Wesley Bush forced Rochester’s lone turnover with an interception in the fourth quarter.
As a team, Northwest Mississippi conceded just 250 yards to the Yellowjackets – 100 of which came in the fourth quarter. The Rangers pass rush was in constant pursuit of Rochester sophomore quarterback Nick Rooney who was sacked four times and hit an additional six.
Despite the punishment, Rooney went 26 for 48 passing for 223 yards and added two touchdown passes to his NJCAA single-season record performance in 2015. The Minnetonka, Minnesota, native finished the year with 57 touchdowns through the air, shattering the previous record of 53 thrown by former Ole Miss and East Mississippi quarterback Bo Wallace in 2011.
On the receiving end of both of Rooney’s touchdown passes was Jalen Esters who finished with a game-high eight catches for 90 yards. Fellow sophomore wide receiver London Covington added six receptions for 39 yards for the Yellowjackets in the loss.
Following Crawford’s opening touchdown, Northwest Mississippi pushed its lead to 14-0 in the first quarter on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Minshew to McCrary. Crawford scored his second touchdown of the afternoon on the opening play of the second quarter, carrying multiple Rochester defenders into the end zone on a 10-yard rush. Minshew would connect with Norwood from 39 yards out and Austin from 18 to push the Rangers’ lead to 35-0 heading into the half.
In the third quarter, Rangers sophomore kicker Jim Speights made a 23-yard field goal to improve the advantage to 38-0. Minshew connected with McCrary for another touchdown before the end of the period as the 36-yard touchdown pass extended Northwest Mississippi’s lead to 45-0.
Minshew notched his fifth touchdown pass in the opening minute of the fourth quarter to put the Rangers up 52-0. Following a fumbled punt return by Northwest Mississippi, the Yellowjackets finally got on the board with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Rooney to Esters with 12:42 remaining – cutting the deficit to 52-7.
After putting in the second string offense, Northwest Mississippi responded with a 5-yard touchdown run by freshman running back Max Joseph. With 1:30 to go, Rangers freshman quarterback Shea Chism found Norwood in the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown pass and a 66-7. On the final play from scrimmage, Rooney threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Esters for the final score of 66-13.
Finishing the year with an 11-1 record, the Rangers claimed their program’s third NJCAA championship and first since 1992. Northwest Mississippi is now 4-3-1 in NJCAA bowl games.
Rochester finished its season at 11-1 as well, having suffered its first defeat of 2015. The Yellowjackets’ postseason struggles continued as their record in NJCAA bowl games dropped to 5-19.