October 28, 2012 1:14:22 AM
Scott Walters - [email protected]
The Columbus High School football team is down to a one-game season.
Columbus must win its regular-season finale at Grenada on Friday night to reach the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A North State playoffs. Columbus saw its margin for error in the playoff chase eliminated with a 16-7 loss to No. 5 Olive Branch in a Class 6A, Region 1 game Friday night at Falcon Field.
"If we win, we are in," Columbus senior defensive back Jimmy Cockrell said. "If we lose, we go home. It is simple as that. We just have to get on the bus, go to Grenada, and do whatever it takes to get a win."
Last season, Columbus finished in a three-way tie for the final two playoff spots in Region 1. Despite winning four region games, the Falcons were the odd man out in the tiebreaker. This season, no such tiebreaker will be needed. Columbus must win to earn the school's first playoff berth since 2005.
"This one hurts, but it won't hurt for very long," Columbus senior linebacker Martavious McKinney said. "You could count this one in the moral victory category. We again proved we can play with anybody in the state. But none of that matters if we don't win next Friday. That is the whole season, and we have to be ready to be at our best."
Columbus junior quarterback Trace Lee knows how far the Falcons have come. Olive Branch worked over Columbus last season in a 43-14 victory.
"I think this is the year of the Falcons," Lee said. "Last year, we were down 40-something to nothing to this team. Tonight, we showed how much we have grown up. I think we are ready to make the playoffs and show we are all about. We have a big group of seniors and this will be a major disappointment if we don't get in. We don't want to let the seniors or our fans down. We will be ready to play in a must-win game."
Columbus fell to 6-4 and 3-3 in the region, while Olive Branch improved to 9-1 and 5-1. The Conquistadors locked up a first-round playoff game at home with the victory.
Columbus coach Tony Stanford said he is proud of the strides the Falcons have made. Even in defeat, Stanford knows the good traction currently associated with his program.
"We played with the big three (South Panola, Southaven, and Olive Branch) this year," Stanford said. "We are getting better. We are close to the point where we can beat these teams. In the past, these schools came in here and expected 50-0 wins. Those days are gone. Each team in the region knows they will have to come in here and really compete to get past us."
The Falcons lost in similar fashion to each of the power three. South Panola used a 99-yard touchdown pass and blocked punt for a 21-14 victory. Southaven scored 10 points in the final 28 seconds of the first half of a 17-7 victory. Olive Branch led 9-7 before perfectly executing a hook and lateral on third-and-21 for a 60-yard touchdown pass with 2 minutes, 9 seconds remaining.
"We had never beaten Olive Branch," Cockrell said. "That is why this was such a huge game for us. We took away the run. We took away the pass. They needed a trick play to get us."
Again, the Falcons turned in a brilliant defensive performance. Columbus made it 12 straight quarters in region play without allowing a touchdown before Olive Branch struck for two in the final quarter.
Offensively, Columbus is still a work in progress.
"The trick play didn't win the game for them or lose the game for us," Lee said. "It comes down to executing on offense. We can't have the defense play a 3-0 half and not do our part. We have tremendous confidence in the defense and in the coaches to give us a great game plan. Now, we have to do more with our chances."
It has become a common theme for Columbus. The Falcons have scored two touchdowns in four region games and one touchdown in two others.
"We don't have any home run hitters (on offense)," Stanford said. "I think the day will come when we have them. Our offense has to plug away at 80-yard drives and there is no big-play threat. It makes for a very difficult situation. We have a quarterback who throws the ball well, but we are average (on offense) in a lot of areas."
Olive Branch built the 3-0 halftime lead on a 36-yard first-quarter field goal by Zack Wier.
Columbus managed 26 yards of total offense in the first half but put together a threat to start the second half. The Falcons ran the first 14 plays before turning the ball over on downs at the Olive Branch 31-yard line.
Olive Branch quarterback Sam Craft was held in check for three quarters. Finally, Craft broke free for a 35-yard scoring run with 5:27 left. The Conquistadors only needed a 39-yard drive after stopping Columbus 1 yard shy of the first down on a fake punt attempt.
Down 9-0, the Falcons moved 80 yards on seven plays. Lee hit Cockrell five times on the drive before calling his number on a 1-yard dive play on third down with 3:13 left.
"That was the best drive we have had in quite some time," Stanford said. "It is a credit to how far we have come. Last year, we would have packed up after Olive Branch scored."
The Falcons failed to get the onside kick. Columbus then burned two timeouts and appeared to be moving Olive Branch into punting territory until Craft hit Lorenzen Burton, who hit Chris Owens on the game-clinching hook and lateral.
"If we play with these guys, we can play with anybody," McKinney said. "Give it to them on the trick play. They got us because we weren't ready for that. We were ready the rest of the night."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter