November 3, 2013 12:04:51 AM
Scott Walters - firstname.lastname@example.org
JACKSON -- After teetering on the brink for the past few weeks, the Columbus High School football team finally fell off the cliff Friday night.
A year after making the Mississippi High School Activities Association playoffs for the first time since 2005, Columbus won't be returning. Murrah made sure of that with a 28-9 victory against Columbus in a Class 6A, Region 2 game at Newell Field.
"I'm at a loss, not really sure what to say anymore," Columbus coach Tony Stanford said. "They beat us in every phase tonight. It was rather alarming."
After back-to-back seven-win seasons, Columbus is 4-6 and 2-4 in region play. Its regular season will end with a home game against region co-leader Warren Central.
Despite losing defensive anchors Jimmy Cockrell and Quan Latham, many felt Columbus had a good chance to return to the postseason. A change from Class 6A, Region 1 to Region 2 was supposed to aid those chances, since that meant no matchups against South Panola, Olive Branch, or Southaven in the regular season.
"We felt like we would be a playoff team," Stanford said. "We thought we would be ever better than we were last year, but sometimes it doesn't work out. This is a great group of kids. They work hard in practice and they do everything we ask of them. For whatever reason, it has not transferred over to Friday nights.
"We never had any consistency. We never had that look or that demeanor you have to have success week in and week out in Class 6A. This group of kids never found a way to jell."
A 41-14 victory against West Point enhanced early season expectations. The Falcons clicked offensively and defensively against the Class 5A Green Wave. On that night, Stanford wondered if his team would be able to reach that level again. Unfortunately, the answer was no. Columbus has held one halftime lead in six region games this season.
Despite its inadequacies, Columbus still appeared capable of making a playoff push. It lost its region opener to Starkville but bounced back to beat Clinton. However, a loss at Northwest Rankin the following week made the situation dire and placed Columbus in virtual must-win mode to get back to the playoffs. Columbus routed Greenville-Weston, but a hard-fought 13-0 loss to Madison Central followed. Still, the Falcons controlled their destiny and needed to put two back-to-back good games together.
Murrah made sure that didn't happen. Behind the solid play of quarterback Malik Dear, one of the state's top prospects in the Class of 2015, the Falcons' defense was on its heels all night.
Columbus had allowed 269 yards in its last three games. Murrah totaled 273 yards, including 73 rushing and 142 passing by Dear.
"He is a great athlete," Stanford said. "He is the type of player who can single-handedly win a game for you. He is so quick and he is extremely smart back there."
Friday night's effort resembled so many others from the Falcons this season.
Columbus had a great drive end on a turnover on downs (at the Murrah 5-yard line), had a false start penalty kill a huge play (a potential 33-yard run by Kendrick Conner), had a miscue on special teams (a snap on a fourth-down punt that Murrah's Timothy Gipson returned 50 yards for a touchdown), and had a mental lapse (allowing Murrah to recover an onsides kick to start the second half).
For the sixth time in region play, Columbus had more penalties than its opponent. For the fourth time, Columbus had fewer offensive yards. In four of six region games, Columbus has allowed a defensive or special teams' score.
"We have a play or series of plays that make it extremely difficult to come back from," Stanford said. "It's not a mistake, but it's a series of mistakes. Our margin for error is not great to begin with. Then we go out and do something that makes it an even longer climb for us."
Murrah improved to 5-6 and 3-3. After winning one game in 2010, the Mustangs are aiming for their second playoff appearance in three seasons. Murrah can earn that spot Friday night by beating Northwest Rankin at home.
Against the Falcons, the strong play of Dear and a loud, energetic Homecoming crowd sparked the Mustangs. The early momentum sent the Mustangs out to a 7-0 advantage on the second possession. Columbus tied it on a 1-yard touchdown run by Trace Lee.
However, Murrah grabbed a 14-7 lead with an 81-yard drive, following an earlier 78-yard drive. Dear completed both drives with touchdown passes.
The Mustangs then forced a punt and recovered the snap that Gipson took to the house. The onsides kick to start the second half finished the Falcons' postseason hopes.
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter